The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced last Friday, April 11, that it plans to undertake the most costly public waterway cleanup in its 43-year history.
At a press conference held at Newark Riverfront Park, EPA Regional Administrator Judith A. Enck said the agency will remove 4.3 million cubic yards of toxic sediment from the lower eight miles of the Passaic River, from Newark Bay to the Belleville/Newark border.
The lower eight miles of the 80-mile-long waterway that runs through seven counties are “the most heavily contaminated section of the river,” according to an EPA press release, which says that, “The sediment [in the river] is severely contaminated with dioxin, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals, pesticides and other contaminants from more than a century of industrial activity.”
EPA spokesman Elias Rodriguez said the agency has estimated it will cost as much as $1.7 billion to enact a cleanup plan still being assembled but it still cannot predict how long the job will take to do. And it won’t be until early 2015 that the plan will be finalized, after the agency hears from the public, he added.
One reason the cleanup figures to be so expensive is that it calls for “bank-to-bank dredging … followed by capping of the river bottom,” the release said.
The EPA said it consulted with the state Department of Environmental Protection, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “with outreach to representatives of the many communities along the lower Passaic River” over seven years to develop the cleanup plan.
The EPA will hold three public hearings to outline the plan as it now stands, the initial one slated for May 7 at 7 p.m. at the Portuguese Sports Club, 55 Prospect St., Newark.
Another May hearing – the date and location not yet fixed – will be held in Kearny and a June hearing is to follow, again date and location to be determined, in Belleville.
People can also submit written comments by mail to: Alice Yeh, Remedial Project Manager, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 290 Broadway, N.Y., N.Y. 10007- 1866 or by email to: PassaicLower8MileComments. Region2@epa.gov. For more information, call 212-637-4427.
“High concentrations of dioxin, PCBs and other contaminants in the lower eight miles of the Passaic River are a serious threat to the people who eat fish and crabs from this river,” Enck said. (Catching crabs is prohibited and there are “Do Not Eat” advisories posted for all fish in the lower Passaic.)
“The EPA’s proposed cleanup plan will result in a cleaner river that protects people’s health and increases the productive use of one of New Jersey’s most important natural resources and creates jobs during the cleanup. Doing less is not good enough for this river or the people who live along it,” Enck said.
According to the EPA, the Diamond Alkali plant in Newark that produced Agent Orange and pesticides in the 1960s “generated dioxin that contaminated the land and the river.” An additional 100 or so companies “are potentially responsible for generating and releasing” other pollutants into the river.
The lower 17 miles of the river, running from Newark Bay to the Dundee Dam at Garfield, are part of the Diamond Alkali Superfund site and from 1983 to 2001, extensive cleanup work was done on land at the Diamond Alkali facility and in the streets and homes near it. In 2012, an EPA-approved contractor dredged, treated and removed 40,000 cubic yards of dioxin contaminated sediment from the river near the plant. And in 2013, EPA oversaw dredging of about 16,000 cubic yards of “highly contaminated sediment” from a half-mile stretch of the river along Riverside County Park in Lyndhurst, outside of the lower eight miles. That work is ongoing.
A long-term study of what to do about contaminated sediment in the 17-mile stretch is still being done by a group of about 70 corporate entities known as the Lower Passaic Cooperating Partners Group with EPA oversight.
Meanwhile, the EPA is focused on the cleanup of the Passaic’s lower eight miles where “there is an approximately 10-to-15-foot deep reservoir of contaminated fine-grained sediment,” of which 4.3 million cubic yards – enough to fill MetLife Stadium twice – “will be dredged and removed” and a protective cap consisting of stone and two feet of sand and will be placed over the 5.4 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment that would remain on the river bottom.
EPA says the dredging would remove nearly 18 pounds of “highly toxic” dioxin, more than 35,000 pounds of mercury, in excess of 15,000 pounds of PCBs and nearly 2,000 pounds of DDT. The toxic mix would be “prepared for transport by rail for incineration and/or disposal in landfills.” An estimated 7% of the stuff “may require incineration at out-of-state facilities in the U.S. and Canada.”
Along the shore, however, the cap will be “one foot of sand and one foot of materials to support habitat for fish and plants.”
After it has a final cleanup plan in place, EPA will undertake engineering and design work “in the following years.” EPA says it will continue to “pursue agreements to ensure that the cleanup work [being proposed for the lower eight miles] be carried out and paid for by those responsible for the contamination at the site.”
– Ron Leir