Posted on October 6, 2021
The nation’s most expensive Superfund cleanup to remove cancer-causing pollution from the Passaic River will be expanded to include 9 more miles in Bergen, Passaic and Essex counties under a plan approved Monday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
But the $1.84 billion project to clean all 17 miles of the lower Passaic is still several years away from launching, officials said Monday.
The $441 million expansion plan would excavate 387,000 cubic yards of contaminated river mud and place a barrier over the rest in a stretch of the river from North Arlington to the Dundee Dam, which spans the waterway between Clifton and Garfield. A list of affected towns follows below.
The plan comes more than seven years since the EPA unveiled an ambitious $1.4 billion “bank to bank” cleanup of the lower 8 miles of the Passaic from Newark Bay to Belleville, where much of the pollution is concentrated. That dredge-and-cap project has not yet begun.
“We know we can’t turn around a century of pollution overnight, but today as part of the solution, we’re taking a very important step,” EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe said during a virtual news conference Monday.
EPA officials have wanted the two projects on the river to be done concurrently to minimize disruptions, such as the opening of bridges, barge traffic and use of heavy machinery, including excavators.
A temporary treatment plant would be built around 2023 at a location that has not yet been finalized, said Walter Mugdan, the EPA’s acting regional administrator. Dredging work would commence a few years after that, he said.
But the threat of pollution being carried into communities from intense storms like Henri and Ida that have inundated North Jersey recently should give urgency to a project like this, said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, who has spent decades advocating for the cleanup.
“Let me tell you something: It has taken too damn long,” he said at the news conference.
The Passaic has long been one of the most polluted rivers in the U.S. Cancer-causing dioxin, PCBs, mercury and other pollutants that were dumped primarily in the more industrial parts of the lower river have been swept by the tide to upriver communities that have homes and parks on its banks.
Dioxin, one of the world’s most dangerous pollutants, isn’t as extensive on the upper 9 miles, but the risk to people may be greater.
The upper part of the river is used for recreation, including a key spot for crew teams to train and compete, hosting the annual Head of the Passaic Regatta, where dozens of high school and club teams race in Lyndhurst.
And the upper part is dotted with pollution “hot spots.” One of those included a patch of mudflats, where the river bends in Lyndhurst, that were strewn with dioxin. Workers dredged 16,000 cubic yards of contaminated mud next to Riverside County Park in 2013 and placed a barrier over the rest.
Most Superfund cleanups move extremely slowly due to protracted legal battles between regulators and polluters as well as efforts to engineer and mobilize an often complicated plan.
The Passaic has been on the EPA’s Superfund cleanup list for decades.
Pollution has been dredged in front of the former Diamond Alkali plant, where dioxin was dumped in the river in the 1960s as a byproduct of making Agent Orange — the infamous cancer-causing defoliant used during the Vietnam War.
But the larger cleanup has been held back by decades of studies and pushback by polluters.
Those on the hook for the bill range from such Fortune 500 companies as DuPont and General Electric to household names like Benjamin Moore paint and Goodrich tires, and even some mom-and-pop businesses like a Lyndhurst Volkswagen dealer. They also include municipalities like Newark, Kearny and East Newark, and other public entities like the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission.
Mugdan said he expects the bulk of the cost to be borne by a small number of major polluters.
Among them would likely be YPF S.A., Argentina’s state-run oil company, whose subsidiary Maxus Energy owned the Diamond Alkali site. Another is Occidental Chemical Corp. of Houston, which agreed in a 2016 settlement with the EPA to spend $165 million to design the cleanup plan.
In 2014, the EPA unveiled a $1.4 billion plan to remove 4.3 million cubic yards of toxic mud from the bottom of the river’s lower 8 miles, from Newark Bay north to Belleville.
Machinery on barges would excavate the polluted sediment, which would be transported to the treatment facility. Water would be separated from solids, treated and pumped back into the river. The polluted solids would be transported by train to an out-of-state landfill that is engineered to accept highly contaminated material, Mugdan said.
Towns in the expanded cleanup area
A number of municipalities in three counties lie along the upper 9-mile stretch of the Passaic River set for cleanup.
- East Rutherford
- North Arlington
Scott Fallon has covered the COVID-19 pandemic since its onset in March 2020. To get unlimited access to the latest news about the pandemic’s impact on New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.