$1.7 billion plan to clean up the Passaic River unveiled
April 11, 2014, 2:13 PM Last updated: Saturday, April 12, 2014, 12:34 PM
By SCOTT FALLON
The Passaic River near Newark.
CARMINE GALASSO/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
The Passaic River near Newark.
In what is being called the largest toxic cleanup in U.S. history, enough highly contaminated sediment to fill 358,000 dump trucks will be dredged from the Passaic River under a $1.7 billion plan announced Friday.
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker speaking Friday on the Newark riverfront, where federal officials outlined their plan to remove 4.3 million cubic yards of toxic mud. He was joined by Sen. Bob Menendez and Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr.
The much-anticipated project by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would remove 4.3 million cubic yards of toxic mud from the bottom of the river’s lower eight miles, one of the most polluted stretches of water in the nation.
The proposal “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,” Judith Enck, the EPA administrator for the region, said at a news conference next to the river in Newark.
The work, however, is years away from starting because of the planning required to carry out the cleanup.
The “bank to bank” project will focus on removing sediment from Newark Bay eight miles north to Belleville.
The Passaic River near Newark.
Although 17 miles of the river — from the bay to the Dundee Dam in Garfield — is part of the Superfund site, EPA officials said they are targeting the lower eight miles because it contains the greatest concentration of cancer-causing dioxin, PCBs, mercury and other industrial pollution. Those contaminants are swept by the tide to other parts of the river.
About 100 companies that either polluted the river or inherited the liability of past polluters are on the hook to pay for the cleanup. Many of them had been advocating for a much smaller, less expensive and quicker cleanup focusing on dredging 25 hot spots in the river.
The EPA’s plan will “take decades to implement in one of the most congested regions in the country, potentially disrupting and impairing economic growth and limiting recreational activity on the river for a generation,” the companies said in a statement Friday.
But several lawmakers, community leaders and environmental activists said the EPA’s plan was the best one for the river.
The news conference about the cleanup drew federal officials including Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, and Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr.
“It’s time for the companies that polluted this river to stop paying their lobbyists and lawyers and start paying for a cleanup,” said Debbie Mans, co-chairwoman of a community group advising the EPA on the project.
Public input planned
The planned cleanup will be enormous. The amount of dredged mud would fill MetLife Stadium twice. It is almost double the amount of contaminated sediment being dredged from the Hudson River, a project long considered the biggest river rehabilitation in the U.S. In that cleanup, General Electric Co. has spent more than $1 billion so far to remove 2 million cubic yards of PCBs that turned the Hudson into a 200-mile Superfund site.
The EPA had long been leaning toward the 4.3-million-cubic-yard cleanup of the Passaic. The project calls for dredging 2½ feet in most of the river and up to 15 feet deep to accommodate a navigation channel. Once the contaminated sediment is removed, a protective cap of 2 feet of sand and 1 foot of materials to support habitat for fish and plants will be placed over the dredged area.
The dredged material would then be taken by barge to a local facility that would separate water from the sediment.
The water would then be cleaned and discharged back into the Passaic. The sediment would be transported by rail to facilities in the U.S. or Canada. Material containing dioxin — about 10 percent of the overall dredged mud — would be incinerated and the rest buried in a landfill that handles toxic material.
The EPA had considered burying the contaminated material in Newark Bay, which would have cost $700 million less. But the state Department of Environmental Protection and local leaders opposed that plan.
The EPA had also been considering a more ambitious plan that would include dredging all of the contaminated sediment — 9.6 million cubic yards — at a cost of up to $3.5 billion. But agency officials said the result would not be more protective of human health.
The EPA plans to hold three public meetings in the coming months to explain the project. After considering comments from the public, the agency will finalize a cleanup plan by early next year. Engineering and design work necessary to carry out the plan will be done in the following years. The EPA estimates it would take five years to dredge the eight miles.
Industrial pollution in the Passaic dates back almost two centuries when the nation’s first textile mills deposited excess dye into the waterway near Paterson. But the 20th century saw some of the deadliest pollution dumped into the river, including mercury, cancer-causing dioxin and the now-banned industrial coolant PCBs.
Despite a three-decade-old ban on crabbing and an advisory against eating fish caught in the lower Passaic, plenty of people — especially new immigrants in lower-income communities — still cast their lines every day into the river looking for a meal. The contaminated part of the river is also used by many high school, club and college crew teams for practice and races.
The companies responsible for the pollution include some of the biggest names in corporate America — BASF, Benjamin Moore, CBS, DuPont, Hess, Honeywell, Otis Elevator, Pfizer, Sherwin Williams, Stanley Black & Decker, and Tiffany and Co. It also includes smaller, local businesses like Garfield Molding and Three County Volkswagen.
So far, two cleanups of toxic material have taken place on the waterway: The dredging and capping of contaminated mudflats in Lyndhurst and the removal of toxic river sediment near the Diamond Shamrock plant in Newark, which dumped dioxin into the river while making the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange.
Representatives for a group of 67 companies, have spent more than a year trying to drum up public support for their smaller cleanup plan, which they say would take three years from start to finish.
Their plan, called the “Sustainable Remedy,” would have removed only 500,000 cubic yards of sediment and restored watersheds to cut down on runoff. It also included a much-ridiculed “fish exchange” proposal where anglers who pull contaminated fish from the Passaic could swap them for healthy ones grown in a nearby tank.
Their plan, called the “Sustainable Remedy,” would have removed only 500,000 cubic yards of sediment and restored watersheds to cut down on runoff. It also included a much-ridiculed “fish exchange” proposal where anglers who pull contaminated fish from the Passaic could swap them for healthy ones grown in a nearby tank. The companies have never said how much their plan would cost. EPA officials estimated it at $400 million to $600 million if they removed 900,000 cubic yards — almost double the quantity proposed by the companies. Jonathan Jaffe, a spokesman for the group, said they will continue to push for their cleanup plan during the comment period. Citing General Electric’s eventual cleanup of the Hudson, EPA officials said they were optimistic that the companies would eventually comply with the agency’s plan. They said the federal Superfund law gives little room to polluters to avoid paying for a cleanup. “We certainly hope they will step up and buy into this,” Enck said. “I’m expecting the best from them.”
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