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Passaic River cleanup plans proceeding, despite fight over who pays

On the Lower Passaic River at Newark on Feb. 21, 2024

Posted on April 15, 2024

As the federal government nears its final approval of a plan to clean up a severely polluted stretch of the Passaic River in Newark, the company that is leading the cleanup said it is pressing ahead with its plans, regardless of who pays.  

Occidental Chemical Corp. (OxyChem) is in a bitter legal —  and public relations —  fight about whether other companies should be held liable for the decades of toxic pollution. 

And the battle has gotten acrimonious, with critics calling for the worldwide conglomerate to “stop playing games and accept responsibility.” 

But OxyChem said it has done so, spending $165 million over the past seven years to design a complex plan for capping and dredging the bed of the lower Passaic River. The goal is to contain or remove a toxic cocktail of chemicals left behind by more than a century of industrial pollution.  

That work is proceeding, the company said, some 40 years after the Environmental Protection Agency first added the site to its list of priorities for cleanup under the then-new Superfund law.  

“It will be paid for, it’s who will pay how much,” a company spokesman told NJ Spotlight News. “We believe that others should be paying more, that they are not being fully held accountable. But the real work is being done and will be done on the river while that case is going on.” 

The stakes are significant for the Houston-based company, a unit of Occidental Petroleum, the oil and gas production and exploration giant with a current market capitalization of some $60 billion.

OxyChem said it has now produced reports totaling some 30,000 pages describing how it would contain, and in some places remove, dioxin and seven other hazardous chemicals that have been identified by the EPA as contaminating the river’s bed in its lower 8.3 miles. 

The Diamond Alkali Superfund site is named after the company that made dioxin and was purchased by OxyChem in 1987. Dioxin was used in the local production of Agent Orange, a notorious and deadly defoliant used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War more than a decade earlier. 

100+ years of pollution 

Actually, the river’s industrial pollution predates even the current effort by more than a century. By the beginning of the 20th century, it was delisted as a commercial fish source; and by 1926, the U.S. government declared the river’s aquatic life destroyed. 

The federal environmental agency has already approved intermediate stages of the massive cleanup plan and is expected to deliver its final approval in the next month or two, said Enrique Castro, director of operations at Glenn Springs Holdings, an affiliate of OxyChem that manages the company’s legacy remediation sites. 

Castro spoke as he led a chilly boat trip for NJ Spotlight News down the lower eight miles of the river in late February, part of the company’s public campaign over the past several months to promote its work.  

A journey on the river

Eric Moses (left) a spokesman for OxyChem and Enrique Castro, director of operations at Glenn Springs Holdings, an affiliate of OxyChem

The two hour-long trip showed the immense challenge ahead in turning the river into anything close to natural or pristine. On a cold, gray morning, the river was lined with factories, warehouses, and other industrial buildings that once made, or still do, products including petroleum, plastics, chemicals, and electrical components made by an array of companies such as General Electric, Honeywell and BASF. Seemingly every other inch of riverbank was occupied by industry that once poured pollutants into the river. 

Anatomy of the cap 

According to a progress report from OxyChem in December, the cap it plans on putting in place will consist of three layers: a residual stabilization layer of sand placed after dredging; a chemical isolation layer to prevent the upward migration of contaminants; and an “erosion protection” layer of stones, gravel and sand that is designed to protect the cap against damage from vessels and storms. Overall, 660 acres of riverbed are due to be capped.  

The plan also aims to restore 93 acres of intertidal mudflats and vegetated wetlands at Kearny Point where the Passaic meets the Hackensack River.  

After the EPA issues its final approval, OxyChem will work with the agency to build on-land support facilities including the sediment-processing plant, which will require cooperation from the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission. The on-land work is expected to take three years. Dredging and capping is due to start a year later, and is expected to take seven to eight years, the company said.

In 2016, the agency announced that OxyChem would design the cleanup plan. It estimated at the time that the cleanup would begin in 2020 and take six years to complete.

And even after the cleanup work is completed, it will be many years before water returns to the point where’s it’s safe for fishing and other forms of recreation, Castro said.

Pointing to a detail in OxyChem’s cleanup plan for the Lower Passaic River

“Once you cap this, the water quality should improve but when it gets to ‘clean’ where you can eat the fish — that’s a longer-term projection. It is decades,” he said.

While the company is pursuing the cleanup, in the backdrop is its well-publicized fight for the right to force other polluters to pay a share of the cleanup cost, which the EPA has estimated at $1.82 billion for all 17 miles of the river in the Superfund site, including the 8.3 miles of the lower river before it empties into Newark Bay.

‘If I had my way, they would take all the poison out.’ — Lenny Thomas, Citizens Advisory Group

The cost estimate contrasts sharply with the $150 million that would be shared by approximately 80 other companies — known as the Small Parties Group — under a cleanup settlement proposed by the EPA. That plan is opposed by OxyChem and is now pending before a federal court in Newark. The ruling is not expected until 2025.

The EPA isn’t saying much about the pending application and who will pay what.

“EPA has identified multiple parties potentially responsible for contaminating the Lower Passaic River, including Occidental Chemical Corp.,” said Elias Rodriguez, an EPA spokesman, in a statement. “Any discussions with these parties are part of the EPA’s confidential ongoing enforcement proceedings.”

Referring to earlier assessment

Asked by NJ Spotlight News about the case, the Small Parties Group  in a statement again urged OxyChem to accept the conclusion of a prior independent assessor hired by the EPA that the company was responsible for 99% of the pollution.

“Once again, OxyChem wants to talk about everything but accepting responsibility for the pollution it dumped into the Passaic River, and the cleanup it now must help to fund,” read the Small Parties Group’s statement.

“OxyChem has continued to employ every trick it can to deflect focus from their responsibility and to fight against the EPA’s settlement. It is time for OxyChem to stop playing games and accept responsibility, so that the long overdue cleanup of the Passaic River can finally move forward,” the group said.

View of the Lower Passaic River at Newark on Feb. 21, 2024

But OxyChem spokesman Eric Moses said its ongoing legal quest won’t stop the cleanup itself from going ahead.

“We can both pursue the other companies to pay their fair share while pursuing the remedy and making sure there’s cleanup,” Moses said. “It’s a very meticulous process that needs to be done right so that we can have the river available for future generations.”

Any public perception that preparation for the cleanup is on hold may be simply because much of the design work such as mapping barriers and obstacles in the riverbed or determining the flow of water at high and low tides is all below the surface, Moses said.

“None of that work is really visible from the riverbank, where people look at the river in Newark or the surrounding cities, but it is and has been going on for years,” he said. “None of it is on hold. To the contrary, that comprehensive and ongoing work is why we were able to submit the design that is now just awaiting EPA’s approval.”

Pushing back against EPA

OxyChem is also challenging the EPA’s assessment that the company is responsible for the vast majority of the cleanup cost on the grounds that when it purchased Diamond Alkali it also purchased the liability for that company’s pollution.

Moses said Diamond Alkali produced only two of the eight hazardous chemicals, wasn’t responsible for contamination upstream of its site and wasn’t the only producer of dioxin among the potentially responsible parties. The other chemicals in the riverbed sediment include lead, copper, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Living not too far away, Lenny Thomas is a Newark resident who’s a member of the Citizens Advisory Group, an EPA-led forum for residents, environmental groups, municipalities and other parties interested in cleaning up the Passaic.

Thomas said  OxyChem can well afford to pay the whole $1.8 billion cleanup cost even if it doesn’t get any help from other polluters. And either way, Thomas said he’s uneasy with the EPA’s cleanup solution that emphasizes capping over dredging because the toxins would still be there, threatening public health.

“If I had my way, they would take all the poison out,” he said.


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