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Upper Raritan River Comes Back to Life

State DEP to take out three dams, open up river to spawning fish for first time in a century.

For the first time in decades, fish may soon be spawning again on the upper stretches of the Raritan River.

The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) yesterday announced it has secured an agreement that will open up a large stretch of the Raritan River for fish spawning as compensation to the public for harm to natural resources caused by a refinery and three polymer plants that were operated by or affiliated with the El Paso Corp.

The settlement, stemming from Natural Resources Claims by the DEP against the Houston-based company, will require the removal of three dams, financed and carried out by El Paso. The project will open up a nearly 10-mile stretch of the middle and upper Raritan to fish migrations for the first time in more than a century, at the same time expanding recreational opportunities along the river.

"This unique and unprecedented settlement will make valuable habitat in the Raritan River available for fish spawning while improving overall environmental conditions in the river system," Commissioner Bob Martin said. "In addition, dam removal will make it easier for kayakers, canoeists, and other lovers of the outdoors to enjoy a river system that has been undergoing a steady and impressive ecological comeback over the years."

The agreement drew rare praise from Jeff Tittel, executive director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey, and a frequent critic of the Christie administration. "Removing dams is important for water quality as well as fish migrations," he said. "Dams hold back the natural flow of the rivers, making the water warmer and increasing levels of bacteria and algae polluting our rivers."

Resolving Claims

The settlement resolves claims that stem from contamination at EPEC Polymers Inc. in Flemington, Hunterdon County; at Nuodex Inc. in Woodbridge, Middlesex County; at EPEC Polymers Inc. in Burlington City, Burlington County; and at the Eagle Point Refinery in West Deptford, Gloucester County. Investigations and/or cleanups are under way at those sites.

The agreement also marks an important first step in what the DEP hopes will become an even broader effort to enhance fish passage or remove additional dams in the Raritan and its tributaries, including the Millstone River.

Dam removal will open up 10 miles of migratory fish habitat along a stretch of the Raritan that twists through a highly diverse residential, commercial and agricultural portion of Somerset County, which includes Bridgewater, Bound Brook, Somerville and Manville. It will also open up some 17 miles of tributaries to spawning. None of the dams were built for flood control.

The dams to be removed are:

  • Calco Dam, located at river mile 20.9 and built by the Calco Chemical Co. in 1938 to disperse chemicals from its facility. The dam is essentially a large concrete pipe spanning the river that today carries and disperses wastewater for Somerset Raritan Valley Sewerage Authority. The authority has built a new outfall that will be operational shortly.

  • The Nevius Street Dam, located at river mile 27 and constructed of rocks and mortar in 1901 for aesthetic purposes and later retrofitted to provide water to ponds on the Duke estate. The DEP and El Paso are working on a plan to ensure the river continues to feed water to these ponds after the dam is removed.

  • The Robert Street Dam, a 6 1/2-foot-high sheet piling and concrete dam located at river mile 27.9 and constructed prior to 1930 for purposes that are not known today.

The Island Farm weir, a dam located between the Calco and Nevius dams and built in the 1990s for the Elizabethtown Water Co. and the New Jersey Water Supply Authority, is not affected by the agreement with El Paso. A large fish ladder in operation at this dam is routinely monitored by the DEP's Division of Fish and Wildlife.

The fish to benefit most from the removal of the dams are American shad, American eel, herring and striped bass. Each of these species once spawned in prodigious numbers in the gravelly shallows of the upper Raritan.

Restoring Natural Resources

El Paso approached the DEP several years ago to cooperatively resolve its Natural Resource Damage liability. Natural Resource Damage claims seek to restore natural resources such as wetlands or groundwater and compensate the public for the amount of time the resources were harmed by pollution.

The DEP uses funds secured from Natural Resource Damage settlements toward ecological restoration projects, typically in the same watershed or general area where resource damages occur.

The Flemington and Woodbridge polymer facilities are located in the Raritan's watershed. The Eagle Point refinery, which El Paso once owned, and the Burlington County polymer facility are located in the Delaware River watershed

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