Posted on October 6, 2021
NEWARK, NJ — After years of industrialization ravaged the Lower Passaic River with chemicals, pesticides and heavy metals, federal environmental officials are now taking the next steps to clean up contaminated sediment in an upper nine-mile portion of the waterway which borders Newark.
Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe and Acting Regional Administrator Walter Mugdan announced on Monday the finalization of an interim plan to clean up a stretch of contaminated sediment in the river that affects fish, wildlife and communities along the riverbanks.
The portion of the river proposed for cleanup is home to a study area of a Superfund site where in the 1950s and 60s, the Diamond Alkali Company manufactured various agricultural chemicals, including herbicides that produced extremely toxic byproducts that ended up in the river. When an EPA-led sampling along the river in the 80s revealed high levels of the toxic chemical dioxin, the federal agency put the impacted area on the Superfund National Priorities List.
Now, federal, state and local officials are determined to support cleanup efforts of the river.
“This is very personal to me. It is a battle I have been fighting for a long time,” said U.S. Sen. Cory Booker during a video conference call on Monday when the interim cleanup plan of the river was announced. “We all know that water itself was tragically off-limits.”
Booker, a former Newark mayor, explained that contamination was both an economic and “spiritual loss” for many city residents and neighboring communities. The contamination, Booker said, robbed generations of residents from enjoying the amenities any clean river could offer and to become “what could have been a great source of economic strength for the city of Newark but became a toxic site.” New Jersey currently prohibits consuming fish or shellfish from the Lower Passaic River and Newark Bay.
“This is a tragedy,” he said. “I hear stories from older Newarkers who remember the days that their parents or grandparents used to fish there or go crabbing or swim, but sadly, those days are no more.”
The interim plan brought to the table on Monday comes after the EPA in April released a proposed plan for public comment, describing it as a multi-phased approach. The EPA held a virtual meeting on April 27 to inform the public of the agency’s preferred action and to receive input from community members.
Part of the EPA’s plan to clean up the impacted area will include dredging approximately 387,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment. The EPA also proposed to cap source areas of contamination and perform additional capping dredging in areas with the potential for erosion and high concentrations of contaminants in the subsurface. Officials also said certain areas will be evaluated as areas where sediments can be dredged so that capping would not be needed.
Additionally, the EPA proposes to process dredged materials at one or more nearby sediment processing facilities already being used for work further downstream before the material is taken off-site for disposal at licensed disposal facilities.
The effort will serve as part of the EPA’s adaptive management approach to reach a final cleanup plan for the Lower Passaic River Study Area. Ongoing sampling will still be conducted to gauge the progress of the cleanup and assess the river to determine if more work is needed to meet the goals of a final plan, officials said. At that time, the EPA would propose a final cleanup plan for the entire Lower Passaic River.
Also joining the call on Monday was state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette to voice his support for cleanup on the Lower Passaic River on behalf of Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration.
The announcement of the interim plan came just days after Murphy visited Newark’s South Ward at Weequahic Park to lay out a roadmap to combating pollution in New Jersey and moving the state to a 100% clean energy economy by 2050.
Part of the governor’s plan called for implementing environmental justice legislation that would help communities like Newark where its underserved communities are disproportionately impacted by pollution.
Upon announcement of the interim cleanup plan for the Lower Passaic River, LaTourette noted how this effort fell in line with the Murphy administration’s goals and could increase residents’ quality of life, “especially those who have for far too long borne a disproportionate impact of the pollution that we all together create,” he said.
“We have to treat the environmental challenges of any one New Jersey community like those along the Passaic as a challenge to our entire New Jersey community,” said LaTourette.