Oct 01
Specialized environmental dredging bucket

Cleanup Begins on the Lower Passaic: Summary and Opinion

Specialized environmental dredging bucket

Workers use a specialized environmental dredging bucket to remove contaminated sediment from the RM 10.9 portion of the Passaic River. Sediment is transported to a facility in Kearny, NJ, for processing before it is moved by rail to a landfill in Oklahoma. Courtesy of Lower Passaic River Study Area Cooperating Parties Group.

In July, after many years of study and debate, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began oversight of a $20 million dredge-and-cap project along the Lower Passaic River in Lyndhurst, New Jersey. The work will remove approximately 20,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from a short stretch of river adjacent to Riverside County Park. On August 7, GSWA Executive Director Sally Rubin attended a press conference intended to mark the start of dredging and introduce the project timeline to media representatives and the general public.

A long legacy of industrial pollution has rendered the Lower Passaic unswimmable, unfishable, and unlivable by most standards. In fact, in 1984, the overwhelming presence of hazardous substances in and below the water led the EPA to list 17 miles of the river — from Dundee Dam near Garfield to Newark Bay — as part of the Diamond Alkali Superfund site.

The site takes its name from the now-defunct Diamond Shamrock Chemical Company (aka Diamond Alkali). As a major manufacturer of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange in the 1950s and 1960s, the corporation’s old Lister Avenue plant is now understood to be the predominant source of PCBs, dioxin, mercury, and other toxins afflicting the Lower Passaic.

For decades, cleanup of the contaminated river bottom has been mired down by innumerable feasibility and impact studies conducted by federal and state government agencies; as well as an unremitting, seven-year lawsuit. Filed by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), the suit sought damages against 70 corporations deemed responsible for causing the pollution. Most of those corporations, including the oft-mentioned Occidental Chemical Corporation, are successors to the original Diamond Shamrock concern which was broken up, sold, and resold over the course of many years.

With the majority of impact studies concluded or wrapping up and the NJDEP lawsuit settled for $130 million in the state’s favor this past June, remediation is finally starting.

The project now underway at River Mile 10.9 — RM 10.9 in common parlance — was not designed to address all 17 miles of the designated Superfund site. In truth, the intervention only covers a 5.6-acre area of severe contamination located offshore west of Riverside County Park. Nevertheless, Judith Enck, regional administrator for EPA Region 2, interprets activity at RM 10.9 as a positive sign of progress to come.

In a prepared statement released at the August 7 press conference Enck stated, “This cleanup removes some of the worst contamination in the Passaic River while the EPA continues to develop long-term cleanup plans for a 17-mile stretch of the Lower Passaic River…” An NJ.com report from the same event portrayed the Administrator’s hopeful outlook: “When you clean up urban waterways, people flock to the river,” Enck said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for recreation and economic growth.”

The Lower Passaic River Study Area Cooperating Parties Group (CPG) recently released a statement announcing a timeline for work at RM 10.9. Equipment barges were to move into the vicinity of Riverside Park by the end of July, and dredging was to be completed by the end of September. However, a number of drawbridge failures along the downstream river corridor delayed the initial staging. Assuming the project recovers lost time, site capping—which involves the placement of an engineered stone barrier over the area of sediment removal—will begin in October and will conclude by December 31.

A diagram depicting the arrangement of silt curtains around the RM 10.9 site.

A diagram depicting the arrangement of silt curtains around the RM 10.9 site. The curtains will work to prevent loose contaminated sediment from flowing downstream and further polluting other areas of the river. Courtesy of Lower Passaic River Study Area Cooperating Parties Group.

Work will be conducted entirely on the water, and is not expected to adversely affect park access, or the health and safety of nearby homes and businesses. However, a number of measures have been implemented in order to ensure the continuing safety and security of workers and residents. Those measures include the presence of an onsite security officer, a roving team of noise monitors, air-quality monitoring stations, and the installation of a floating silt curtain system in waters surrounding the site. The silt curtain, which extends several hundred yards downstream, is designed to prevent disturbed sediments from washing into other areas.

New Jersey will cover the $20 million price tag associated with RM 10.9 by dipping into the $130 million fund secured by NJDEP’s lawsuit. Although all of that settlement money has been earmarked for cleanup of the Lower Passaic, the Christie Administration — in a bid to balance the state budget — is pushing to reallocate at least $40 million of it into the state’s General Fund.

Speaking at the August 7 press conference, NJDEP Commissioner Bob Martin explained that the substantial reallocation would be used to pay back the state for earlier environmental investigations and intervention planning his agency conducted on the Lower Passaic. According to The Observer Online, Martin clarified his position stating that, “Before EPA got involved, the state did a lot of research to understand the magnitude of the problem with the river…”

NJDEP’s argument in favor of retroactive remuneration to the General Fund does not sit well with many. Congressman Bill Pascrell from New Jersey’s 9th District is one of those opposed to the idea. In a letter to Governor Christie dated August 6, 2013, he wrote, “….it is essential that all funding recovered from the responsible parties be put toward the remediation and environmental restoration of the Passaic River, and not diverted to alternate programs.”

Congressman Pascrell’s view echoes those of others throughout New Jersey who see the governor’s move as a scheme to pad the state’s budget at the expense of Passaic River communities. From this perspective, a clear distinction is made between the fuzzy logic of collecting a reimbursement for past exploratory exercises, and the inevitable need to pay the bills coming due for current, effective, shovel-in-the-ground remediation projects. For those who have waited much of their lives to see even a single concrete step taken toward river restoration, there is nothing to contest. Funds from NJDEP’s settlement must be used to alleviate the present threat and real pain of Passaic River pollution, and not redistributed under the pretense of refunding the government for work that has already been bought and paid for.

The poet and author Maya Angelou famously wrote that, “When we cast our bread upon the waters, we can presume that someone downstream whose face we will never know will benefit from our action, as we who are downstream from another will profit from that grantor’s gift.” The communities of the Great Swamp Watershed have put tremendous effort into ensuring that the water passing through their custody on its way to Newark Bay remains clean and accessible to all. It is a given that those efforts have not been entirely successful, neither have they been wholly altruistic. Nevertheless, the principle of Angelou’s statement stands. The Passaic River begins with fishable, swimmable, and livable water. There is no valid principle or reasoning available to deny or delay the same for those living beyond its headwaters.

As protectors and advocates for waters that eventually find their way into the Lower Passaic, the Great Swamp Watershed Association lauds the progress made with the initiation of the dredge-and-cap program at RM 10.9. We also encourage all parties involved to look forward, instead of dwelling on past travails. Maintain your established momentum and commit all available resources and earmarks to the continuation of viable, effectual environmental remediation and restoration. Action is the best and only way to stretch the gift of cleaner water from the Great Swamp all the way to Newark Bay. And the sooner it is done, the sooner all of us in New Jersey may profit from a swimmable, fishable, and livable Passaic River.

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