New river cleanup plan: $1.3 bn, 9-10 years

The federal government is inching closer to cleaning the lower eight miles of the Passaic River, between Belleville and Newark Bay in Jersey City, which it describes as “the most heavily contaminated section” of the waterway.

At a press conference held at the Newark office of the U.S. Housing & Urban Development on Friday, March 4, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would excavate 3.5 million cubic yards of polluted sediment and then cap, “bank-to-bank,” that entire length of river bottom at a cost projected at $1.38 billion.

“The Passaic River has been seriously damaged by over a century of pollution,” said EPA Regional Administrator Judith A. Enck. “Extraordinarily high concentrations of dioxin, PCBs, heavy metals and pesticides have robbed the people of New Jersey from being able to use this natural resource. The EPA’s cleanup plan will improve water quality, protect public health, revitalize waterfront areas and create hundreds of new jobs. This plan is one of the most comprehensive in the nation and will help restore a badly damaged river.”

N.J. Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin called the plan “the culmination of decades of studies and analyses and efforts” by both agencies and predicted that the project would end up “spurring growth along the Passaic River and throughout northern New Jersey.”

The EPA’s cleanup goals have been scaled down a trifle from its draft plan floated in April 2014 which called for dredging 4.3 million cubic yards of sediment for a cost pegged at $1.78 billion.

The EPA shepherded two prior modest cleanup efforts, the first in 2012 with the dredging of about 40,000 cubic yards of dioxin-laced sediment near the former Diamond Alkali plant in Newark and in 2013 with the removal of about 16,000 cubic yards of polluted sediment from a half-mile stretch of river off Riverside County Park in Lyndhurst. These undertakings were viewed as test runs for the more ambitious project.

But the proposed 8-mile dredge/cap operation figures to take nine to 10 years to complete – and that will happen only if EPA can persuade the Lower Passaic River Study Area Cooperating Parties Group – more than 60 companies linked to the spoiling of the waterway who have agreed to try and find a “sustainable remedy” for the river’s pollution – to finance the venture.

A few months after the draft plan was unveiled in 2014, the CPG took federal regulators to task, labeling it as “legally indefensible” in terms of the federal guidelines set for the project and “scientifically and technically unsound.”

Based on an independent study in which the companies invested $100,000, the CPG said it makes more sense to clean the lower 17-mile length of the river – from Newark Bay to the Dundee Dam – by doing a targeted removal of 150 acres in the lower Passaic with the highest levels of near-surface contamination.

This procedure, they said, should take about half the time as the EPA plan and upgrade the river quality to make it safe enough for fishing and even swimming.

Under the EPA plan, the proposed cap would consist of two feet of sand except along the shore where it will be one foot of sand and one foot of materials to support habitat for fish and plants.

“In the 1.7 miles closest to Newark Bay, deeper dredging will occur to allow current commercial navigation to continue. Based on further assessment of the reasonably anticipated navigational uses, the EPA expects less depth in parts of the navigation channel than was contemplated in the 2014 proposed plan,” according to an EPA press release.

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.