Posted on May 2, 2017
By Kelly Nicholaides, NorthJersey.com
A boat ride or canoe paddle along Berry’s Creek reveals the majestic beauty of the wetlands, and few find it hard to believe the level of contamination that lurks below.
“I used to joke that there’s so much mercury that you can see it move. This is one of the most toxic sites in North America,” said Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
Berry’s Creek’s colorful history includes use as a 20th-century commerce route, Prohibition-era bootlegging and a drainage ditch during the industrial boom up into the 1970s, with the latter sealing the creek’s murky fate as mercury and other toxins flowed in.
Tittel has been waiting for action on Berry’s Creek for three decades.
After monitoring data, sediment, water and fish for seven years at Berry’s Creek, the Environmental Protection Agency now recommends a cap and dredge, but any cleanup is at least four years away.
The creek is named for Major John Berry an early British settler and deputy governor. The 6.5-mile long tributary flows through portions of Teterboro, Wood-Ridge, Lyndhurst, Carlstadt, Rutherford and East Rutherford.
The Berry’s Creek Study Area has mercury contamination that migrated from the 40-acre Ventron/Velsicol Superfund site in Wood-Ridge, but the creek not in itself a Superfund site. The creek also contains PCBs or polychlorinated biphenylis, which is an organic chlorine compound and once widely deployed as dielectric and coolant fluids in electrical apparatus, carbonless copy paper and in heat transfer fluids.
“Dredging is expensive but it’s a permanent remedy.”
The pollution affected the more than 260 bird species that make their way through the meadows and 65 marine life species, local environmentalists say. In 2008, 120 potentially responsible parties signed a settlement agreement.
“The mercury and PCBs are of major concern, with risks above acceptable levels…[There are concerns] with eating fish, for sandpipers who pull out organisms from the mud, and the food chain effects,” said Doug Tomchuck, EPA spokesperson.
The sediment at the bottom of the creek is relatively stable though and didn’t move much, even during Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy, he added. The estuary and phragmites (reed) marshes contribute to the sediment staying put.
“The marshes have built up contamination over time, but contamination concentrations tend to decrease toward the surface, as cleaner water and sediment comes in with the tides,” Tomchuk said.
The thickness and dredging and capping options will be evaluated in a Feasibility Study.
The goal is to propose a cleanup plan this year. “It’s Superfund 101. We issue a proposed plan, and a record of decision. Then EPA and the companies sign an agreement for the cleanup. The completion of the remedial design and start of cleanup would be approximately three years after the record of decision is signed,” noted EPA spokesperson Elias Rodriguez.
“The cleanup when you’re dealing with a tidal area as opposed to a former factory is unique because the contamination at Berry’s Creek affects the entire ecosystem, so it’s like a witch’s brew, said Tittel. Each delay spreads contamination. “The longer it takes, the more it spreads. As parts of the Meadowlands get cleaner, the marshes attract more species that come in and get exposed to mercury, bacteria and raw sewage.”
Dredging is a better option than a cap, Tittel maintains. “Dredging is expensive but it’s a permanent remedy. Caps fail, especially in tidal areas. Soils shift. They need to remove as much contamination as possible.”
Cautiously optimistic, Tittel says that since the Clean Water Act in 1972, waterways have cleaned up. He is concerned with 30 percent cut to EPA’s Superfund budget, he said.
Costs estimates could not be determined at this time, but Tomchuck said it could cost into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
2008 – A settlement agreement is reached with the more than 100 cooperating potential responsible parties.
2016 – draft Remedial Investigation report submitted to EPA
2016 Human Health Risk Assessment and Ecological Risk Assessment reports submitted to EPA
Summer 2017 – EPA will discuss the findings of the field investigations.
Early 2018- a proposed plan with feasibility study will be completed, options evaluated, and proposed remedies provided before being presented for public comment
2018 – A Record of Decision on the suggested remediation