New Jersey may soon be the center of one of the largest cleanups ever proposed by the EPA. The agency has proposed a $1.7 billion dredging of the Passaic River, arguably one of the most polluted water sources in the state. The operation would seek to remove some four million cubic yards of sediment from the river bottom and undo decades' worth of toxicity, mostly caused by nearly a century of industrial activity, including illegal dumping.
Initially, only the lower eight miles of the river would be targeted - from the town of Belleville to the city of Newark - and that alone would be a cumbersome project. It's an area heavily contaminated by high concentrations of dioxin, PCBs (synthetic chemical compounds), and other pollutants, as well as the accumulation of various litter over the years. EPA officials said over 100 companies would likely be found responsible for the Passaic River's poisoning, and would be required under federal Superfund law to pay the cost of the cleanup.
EPA regional administrator Judith Enck remarked, according to CBS, that in addition to dioxins and PCBs, "this river is heavily contaminated with heavy metals like led and mercury, and pesticides. It is a witches' brew of chemicals, and unfortunately, some of them cause cancer." She attributed the contents to chemical corporations, noting, "Right here in Newark, a chemical company manufactured Agent Orange, which was used during the Vietnam War, and it was dumped on the land" afterward, whereupon it seeped into the river. "We've studied this for years," she said. "The river communities have suffered for long enough."
This undertaking would be already be a reality - instead of just a proposal - if not for the various chemical companies that are seeking to delay the effort, environmentalists say. Debbie Mans of ecological group NY/NJ Baykeeper, said such corporations "have been paying lobbyists and lawyers instead of paying for the cleanup." She referred to the various ongoing legal battles between the EPA and chemical companies blamed for the river contamination, all of which are fighting tooth and nail to shirk all responsibility for the disaster and refusing to pay damages.
The Passaic River runs through many working-class Jersey towns, including Hawthorne, Elmwood Park, Garfield, Nutley, and Belleville, as well as the cities of Clifton, Newark, and Paterson; it flows northeast into the latter area, where it drops over the Great Falls of the Passaic River, a 77-foot-high waterfall that has been designated a national landmark by the National Park Service. The Passaic River is also home to various wildlife that have long felt its toxic effects - this includes fish and shellfish that are contaminated with mercury and have extremely high rates of deformity and mutation. People have long been advised not to fish in the area, or to eat anything caught from the river.
The Newark-based company to which Enck referred was Diamond Alkali, which operated there between 1951 and 1969 and acquired a reputation for producing low-quality products and having multiple industrial accidents. The company routinely dumped "bad batches" of its herbicides into the Passaic River, and, indeed, tossed the remains of their Agent Orange into the water as well. The empty tract where the plant once stood is now encased in concrete, preventing any further leaking of contaminants into the river. But the damage, experts acknowledge, was already done long ago.
At this point, some environmentalists remain optimistic - some not. But to move forward with this cleanup, said EPA official Ray Basso, the companies really need to play ball. Some companies have requested the agency dial back the scope of its proposal, claiming that such a large-scale dredging would take too long and would not be feasible from an economic standpoint, but the agency has refused to shave down their goal. "It's not debatable at this point," said Basso. "There's no wiggle room. We can't do any less than what is in our plan."
Basso was among those who remained hopeful, adding, "I've spent 30 years in the Superfund program. Ninety-nine percent of the parties, especially ones that have the money, do come to the table."
Mans believed the corporations should absolutely come forward and pay for what they've done. She remarked, "These are companies with brand recognition. Are they really going to walk away from this? Are they really going to tell their customers they aren't going to do this? It's not like they can't pay."
Photo: The Great Falls of the Passaic River, in Paterson, New Jersey. Wikipedia (CC)