By Ron Leir
By month’s end, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expects to complete a design plan for purging a 5-acre section of toxin-laden tidal mudflats alongside Riverside County Park in Lyndhurst, said Ray Basso, director of the Lower Passaic River Cleanup Project.
That would be the first phase – and demonstration model – of a longterm plan for cleaning up an 8-mile stretch of the river that experts believe is the most polluted part of the Passaic.
But the 70 corporate entities (the Cooperating Parties Group) who’ve accepted responsibility for the cleanup because their predecessor companies that polluted the Passaic – and others – have already voiced concerns that EPA’s plan will be too costly to implement or that it doesn’t go far enough.
So it remains to be seen what the final outcome will be.
In the meantime, Basso and the EPA are working diligently to create the design that, according to Basso, will accomplish, via dredging, excavation of the top two feet of contaminated sediments – an estimated 20,000 cubic yards of soil – containing predominantly PCBs, dioxin and mercury, and the application of sand and a woven “geotextile” fabric cap that would absorb any loose contaminants.
The dredging would extend, roughly, from the Passaic River shoreline to the navigation channel, he said.
The EPA has come up with a preliminary cost estimate for the job of $25 million – all of which would be financed by the CPG – although, according to published reports, that group would prefer remediating “pollution hot spots” along the Lower Passaic’s entire 17 miles.
At the same time, the Passaic River Coalition, an advocacy group that seeks to reclaim riverfront acreage for public access, also opposes the EPA design plan as insufficient. Since the coalition owns waterfront land at the most northern point of the Lyndhurst mudflats targeted for cleanup, it’s a “primary stakeholder” in the process, said Ella Filippone, executive director of the coalition.
Filippone said that both a state tidelands permit and a state waterfront development permit are needed for the cleanup to proceed but she says the coalition “won’t sign off” on approvals for those permits “because I want them to remove the total mass of dioxins or PCBs, not just scrape off the top 12 inches – that’s not cleaning up the river.”
The coalition recently filed a “letter of concern” with the state Department of Environmental Protection and Filippone’s hope is that a public hearing will be held “so we can tell them how we feel.”
Filippone said the proposed cap doesn’t “provide for flood management” nor does it control the movement of any loose toxins spread by tidal flow.
“What are they going to find underneath those top 12 inches?” Filippone wondered. “Once you open it up, the river is still flowing over it.” And if there are toxins there, the river could simply spread them further along the banks, she said.
Basso said that because most of the dredging “will occur in shallow water,” that will tend to minimize any further dislodging of toxins but, as a control against potential spreading, the EPA has called for the placement of “silt curtains” around the dredging site.
Additionally, Basso said, the EPA design calls for the CPG to monitor the stability of the cap by a combination of “visual observation during low tide” and by taking “bathymetric” readings (measuring sound waves bouncing off the bottom).
If things go according to plan, Basso said the EPA hopes to begin work in July, complete dredging in two months and install the cap by October or November.
Kearny, which has a considerable amount of Passaic River waterfront acreage, has yet to weigh in on the design issue. Mayor Alberto Santos said he’ll be meeting this week with Hudson Riverkeeper Debbie Mans to learn about her experience in facilitating corporate-sponsored cleanup of the Hudson. Santos said he wants to compare the efficacy and price of the EPA plan and the CPG alternative, particularly the contaminant disposal costs.
Basso said that post-Sandy testing of surface soil samples collected from Riverside County Park in Lyndhurst and in North Arlington showed “levels of contaminants that were well within the risk level for kids playing there.” And a March EPA press release noted that, “EPA does not plan on further sampling of the recreational areas in the park and deems that park soil cleanup actions are not warranted ….”
Meanwhile, Filippone said the coalition – in concert with Lyndhurst – is continuing to purchase small, undeveloped, vacant lots along the Passaic for preservation as public parkland. “We’ve acquired about 25 so far and we’ve got about six more to go [to form a connected stretch],” she said. It’s not always a straightforward process because of easements required, so that sometimes it costs more to pay the legal fees than it does for the actual purchase of the lot, she said.
With the aid of a $50,000 grant from Bergen County, Filippone said the coalition hopes to carve out a walkway/ bikepath, from the T-ball field in Riverside Park to Rt. 3 in Lyndhurst.
But Lyndhurst Parks & Recreation Commissioner Tom DiMaggio said there are hurdles to overcome before the township can begin thinking about seeing the river pathway. “This is something that’s been talked about for years but until we actually get the money to accomplish that, we’ll have to wait and see. The township needs to take over a few [county- and private-owned] lots and I don’t know what the cost will be, so where we stand on this project is nowhere right now. You could say the talk of a walkway is just that – talk.”