Public input sought on Passaic Ave. spans

And now, the next chapter of the long-running Passaic River cleanup story: a design study.

It will take four years and in excess of $100 million to complete.

Then another six years and an estimated $1 billion-plus to execute it.

And, when all is said and done, folks will still be unable to swim in its waters, much less fish from it.

Still, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 2 Administrator Judith A. Enck said last Wednesday that “a new chapter” in the history of the Passaic had been reached with EPA signing a legal agreement with Occidental Chemical to do the engineering/design work needed to start remediation of 8.3 miles of the lower Passaic.

“This agreement is a milestone in getting the Passaic River cleaned up. It is an example of how Superfund is designed to work – those responsible for the contamination pay for the work, rather than taxpayers,” Enck said.

“Occidental has agreed to spend $165 million to do this work and in doing so is moving us a lot closer to a restored Passaic River. The EPA will work to secure similar agreements with the other parties that polluted the Passaic River and have a legal responsibility to pay for the cleanup.”

EPA is projecting four years to do the design study, with oversight by the federal agency, and another six years to execute the cleanup.

According to EPA, while Occidental did not directly discharge pollutants into the river, it has assumed legal responsibility for toxins discharged from the former Diamond Alkali pesticides manufacturing plant that operated in Newark from the 1940s to the 1960s. Diamond Alkali was sold several times, eventually to a firm affiliated with Occidental and then merged into Occidental.

EPA has identified more than 100 companies as “legally responsible” for various types of toxins dumped into the river.

The Lower Passaic Cooperating Parties Group, which represents 52 of those companies, issued a statement last week saying: “The LPCPC is pleased to learn that Occidental Chemical Corp. will be performing and funding remedial design work for the cleanup of the lower 8.3 miles of the Lower Passaic River, from Newark Bay to the Newark/Belleville border.

“We appreciate that the EPA recognizes Occidental’s legal responsibility for the Diamond Alkali facility, which was a ‘major source’ of dioxin in the river. Today’s agreement is a key component in the EPA plan to clean up the river; we hope Occidental continues to be a strong and active participant in the process, recognizing its responsibility for the current condition of the river.”

After EPA, in March, issued its proposed $1.38 billion cleanup plan – which calls for a bank-to-bank dredging and capping of the lower Passaic – the LPCPC took issue with the cleanup strategy and price and presented an alternate plan which it maintained would be more efficient and less costly.

Enck said that all legally responsible parties “will contribute to the cleanup,” either by “mutual agreement with EPA” or, failing that option, “EPA can issue a unilateral order” which can be challenged in court.

“They’re going to be paying, sooner or later,” Enck told reporters during last week’s media conference call originating from EPA’s Region 2 headquarters in New York.

EPA Region 2 Superfund Director Walter Mugdan said now that the agency has a commitment on the design phase, “we will initiate negotiations [with the other responsible parties], especially with some of the smaller entities to try and settle them out.”

Occidental will still be on the hook for a share of the cleanup costs, Enck said.

EPA is focusing its remediation on the lower portion of the river because it “is the most heavily contaminated section of the river – 90% of the volume of contaminated sediments in the river is in the lower eight miles,” EPA says. That includes dioxin, PCBs, heavy metals, pesticides and other materials.

So, once the design is done, the cleanup plan will require the bank-to-bank dredging of 3.5 million cubic yards of mud from the bottom of the river and capping – the largest such Superfund project in the nation.

“The amount of toxic sediment would fill the Red Bull Arena [in Harrison] three times,” said Enck.

Plans call for dredging two-and-a-half feet of sediment and even deeper in the navigable channel at Newark Bay, then de-watering the materials – the process will resemble a French press coffee pot, Enck said – and transporting it to a licensed disposal facility outside New Jersey.

An estimated 24,000 pounds of mercury, 6,600 pounds of PCBs, 1,300 pounds of DDT and 13 pounds of highly toxic dioxin are slated to be removed from this portion of the river.

This work would follow two prior dredging projects along the river: in 2012, the EPA monitored the removal of about 40,000 cubic yards of dioxin near the Diamond Alkali plant and in 2013, it oversaw removal of about 16,000 cubic yards of toxic sediment from a half-mile stretch along the Lyndhurst mudflats.

Under terms of the newly concluded agreement, Occidental has 10 days from Sept. 30 to submit the name of a project director to EPA and, five days thereafter, to propose a supervising contractor.

During the dredging phase, “we don’t expect river traffic to be adversely affected,” Enck said. “The river will be open during the cleanup.”

Asked if the lower 8 miles would be safe to fish and/or swim after the work is done, Enck said it would not. “It takes a very long time for toxic levels to go down,” she said, without defining how long.

“We still have a separate problem to deal with,” Enck added, from the introduction of additional pollution from storm water overflows into the river. “EPA is working with DEP (N.J. Department of Environmental Protection) and municipalities to correct that [through the combined sewer overflow program].”

Both the compromised river sediment and the CSO issue will have to be controlled, Enck said, “before we reach the goal of a fishable, swimmable water.”

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