By Ron Leir
What started out as a public celebration of a federal/state initiative to clean up part of the Passaic River segued into sniping between a congressman and a state environmentalist over allocation of funding for the river’s restoration.
Gov. Chris Christie triggered the brouhaha when it was disclosed that his administration intended to divert to the state treasury $40 million from a $130 million partial settlement with corporations responsible for the industrial pollution of the river – a move that irked Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-Paterson).
These developments played out last Wednesday in Riverside County Park North at a press confab convened by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection. Bergen County Executive Kathy Donovan and Lyndhurst Mayor Robert Giangeruso to call attention to the start of a $20 million project to remove 20,000 cubic yards of toxic soil laced with PCBs, dioxin and mercury – industrial pollutants from years ago – from a half-mile-long, five-acre section of mudflats bordering the park in Lyndhurst. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock of Staten Island, N.Y., has been retained by the Lower Passaic Cooperating Parties Group – which has accepted responsibility for the river’s cleanup – is scooping out the top two feet of mud into barges which transport it to Clean Earth in Kearny for treatment and, ultimately, shipment by rail to a disposal site out west. The mud is de-waterered for separate processing. After the digging is completed, a multi-layered cap of sand, stone, fabric will be placed atop the mud.
“The level of contamination in this area of river sediment is very high and the EPA is ensuring it doesn’t move and contaminate other areas of the [17-mile-long] Lower Passaic River,” Regional EPA Administrator Judith Enck said.
“This cleanup removes some of the worse contamination … while the EPA continues to develop long-term cleanup plans for a 17-mile stretch of the Lower Passaic River between the Dundee Dam and Newark Bay,” she added. An EPA feasibility study focused on remediating the lower eight miles of the river containing the most serious “hot spots” is due by year’s end.
Enck paid tribute to the late Ella Filippone, founder of the Passaic River Coalition, and the late Carol Johnston of the Ironbound Community Corp. of Newark for their steadfast advocacy in pushing government to restore the health of the river.
“In the next book that’s written about the river, there needs to be a special chapter on the role of the public,” Enck said, and the role played by those individuals in particular. Their dedication “inspires me” to get the job done, she added.
DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said that it was “a top environmental priority of the Christie administration … to restore this river to one that can be a swimmable and fishable natural resource and an economic engine to benefit towns like Lyndhurst and … other urban communities….”
Still, both Enck conceded that it would like take “years and years” to achieve a full restoration at a cost that, Pascrell noted, “could top $2 billion” by EPA’s estimates so, by that measure, “we will have a long way to go.”
And that’s why, Pascrell said in an Aug. 6 letter to Christie, “… it is essential that all funding recovered from the responsible parties be put towards the remediation and environmental restoration of the Passaic River, and not diverted to alternate programs.”
Speaking to reporters after the public presentation, DEP’s Martin said that Pascrell was all wet.
“The major reason we went into this litigation,” the commissioner said, “was that the state may have to pick up an ‘orphan share’ of the cleanup costs and that could approach anywhere from $200 to $400 million” beyond whatever monies are ultimately collected from the corporations, particularly Occidental Chemical, one of the major players involved in the litigation.
Aside from that consideration, Martin said, “Before EPA got involved, the state did a lot of research to understand the magnitude of the problem with the river and the congressman seems to forget the ongoing costs involved with that research. He needs to get his facts right.” The commissioner said that the state is “focused on the recovery of prior costs and the future. We’re not anywhere done with the litigation with Occidental and others.”
Martin reiterated the state’s commitment to making sure that all of the “major parties” that are part of the cleanup agreement deliver the goods. “We expect to hold them accountable,” he said, “and I’m disappointed the congressman is making this a political issue.