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Newark Community Group Feuds with Sierra Club over Cleanup of Passaic River

Dispute centers on EPA plan to cap toxic waste with sand after riverbed is dredged

EPA dredging
The EPA's plan includes dredging 3.5 million cubic yards of sediment containing pollutants and toxic material.

A Newark community group is defending the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s final plan to clean up the Passaic River, despite criticism by the New Jersey Sierra Club that the plan will fail to completely remove toxic chemicals in the severely contaminated waterway.

The EPA on Friday announced a $1.38 billion plan to remove 3.5 million cubic yards of sediment containing dioxin, PCBs, heavy metals, and some 100 other contaminants from the lower eight miles of the river, and then cap the riverbed with two feet of sand from bank to bank to contain remaining sediment.

The plan will be the country’s largest-ever environmental dredging project, said Judith Enck, the EPA’s Region 2 administrator, and follows years of analysis and discussion over how to clean up the badly polluted river after more than a century of industrial contamination.

The federal agency said the plan will improve water quality, protect public health, revitalize waterfront areas, and create hundreds of new jobs. “This plan is one of the most comprehensive in the nation and will help restore a badly damaged river,” said Enck, at an event attended by U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, as well as Bob Martin, commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection.

The river has been seriously damaged by decades of industrial pollution, notably from Newark’s Diamond Alkali factory which in the 1960s produced Agent Orange, a defoliant used in the Vietnam War. The operation resulted in contamination of the river and surrounding land with dioxin, a highly toxic substance.

The EPA’s program was immediately attacked by the New Jersey Sierra Club, whose director, Jeff Tittel, said it would not remove all the contaminants, so local residents would still be exposed to the cocktail of toxic chemicals that has contaminated fish and raised concerns about human health.

“The people in Newark and along the Passaic River have waited 40 years for a clean-up and now this toxic nightmare will continue,” Tittel said in a statement. “The EPA’s clean-up plan will not work because it will only cap the pollution.”

Tittel said the EPA should have chosen an earlier plan to dredge 8.3 miles to a depth of between 12 and 30 feet, which he said would have removed all the contaminants so that people could once again use the river for fishing and boating, as they did before the 1950s.

The EPA said there is a “reservoir of contaminated fine-grained sediment” approximately 10 feet to 15 feet deep in the lower eight miles of the river. Some 2.5 feet of that will be removed and then the riverbed will be capped with two feet of sand, except along the shoreline where the cap will consist of a foot of sand and a foot of material that will support habitat for fish and plants.

Tittel’s criticism was rejected by a community group that has contributed to the multiyear debate over how to clean up the river.

Debbie Mans, co-chair of the Community Advisory Group for the Passaic River Superfund Site, which backs the plan, called Tittel’s comments “frustrating” and claimed he was attacking the plan without understanding the issue.

“We’ve been meeting as a community group for six years and he has never come to any of our community meetings, never spoken with the community,” said Mans, who is also executive director of New York New Jersey Baykeeper, an environmental group that works to protect the harbor estuary. “The community is behind the proposal and I think it’s disappointing that a statewide group would try to step on top of them to say ‘we know what’s best’ when they haven’t spent the time in the community understanding it.”

Tittel responded to Mans’ comments by arguing that the EPA previously tried capping the riverbed at mile 10.9, one of its pollution “hotspots”, but that the cap was washed away by the tide. He predicted the same thing will happen when the larger cap is attempted under the new plan, which he called “risky at best.” The community group’s comments did not address that argument, he said.

He said the Sierra Club has expressed its views on the Passaic River cleanup for years, and that two of its members belong to the Community Advisory Group.

David Yennior, one of the Sierra Club members on the CAG, said the EPA had never provided an example of riverbed capping that worked, and he rejected the criticism from Mans, and similar comments from Ana Baptista, the other co-chair of the CAG.

“I very much resent Ana and Debbie’s criticism of Sierra’s position,” Yennior wrote in an email. “The EPA worked hard to brainwash the CAG but never answered our objections to the capping.”

Yennior said he had asked for a second vote on the capping plan but the request was rejected by the co-chairs and a facilitator who was paid by the EPA.

Tittel speculated that the community group decided to back the EPA plan because “something is better than nothing,”, even though he said there’s no evidence the riverbed cap will work. He also rejected the accusation that he doesn’t understand the local issues, saying that his aunt and uncle, who lived four blocks from the Diamond Alkali site, both died of liver cancer.

He also criticized the plan for failing to obtain the signoff of responsible parties, the industrial polluters such as Occidental Chemical, the owner of Diamond Alkali, who are liable for the cost of the cleanup.

The EPA’s Enck said officials will now begin negotiations with more than 100 “potentially responsible parties” who are required under the Superfund law to pay for the cleanup. “Occidental Chemical will be required to pay a large portion of these costs,” she said, without being more specific.

Many of the other companies have come together in a cooperating parties group that is working to apportion the costs, she said.

Enck said the new plan cuts the amount of dredging from the 4.3 million cubic yards proposed in one of the options it considered in 2014, reducing the cost by some $300 million. The reduced dredging affects the length of river that’s navigable for commercial shipping but won’t reduce the effectiveness of the cleanup, she said.

“The reason is that there is going to be less dredging for commercial navigation,” she said. “It has nothing to do with the environmental protectiveness of the cleanup.” She said the amount of sediment to be dredged would be enough to fill the nearby Red Bull Arena three times.

The new plan builds on dredging that has already occurred in two smaller areas with high concentrations of contaminants. In 2012, about 40,000 cubic yards of the most highly dioxin-contaminated sediment near the Diamond Alkali site were removed, treated and then transported by rail to licensed disposal facilities out of state.

In 2013, the EPA oversaw dredging of approximately 16,000 cubic yards of highly contaminated sediment from a half-mile stretch of the river that runs by Riverside County Park North in Lyndhurst, about 11 miles north of the river mouth and outside of the lower eight miles addressed in the new plan.

In the latest plan, sediment dredged from a stretch between Newark Bay and the Belleville/Newark border will be dewatered and then taken by train for treatment at licensed facilities, the EPA said.

With the cleanup plan now finished, the EPA will spend the next year negotiating payments with the responsible parties, and then begin a four-year design phase, followed by a further six years when the cleanup is due to happen.

The resulting 11-year schedule for completing the work “may seem like a long time but we are cleaning up over a century of toxic pollution in a tidal river,” Enck said.

Jon Hurdle is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.

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