The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provided new details on its plan to clean up a section of the Passaic River in Newark that is heavily polluted with dioxin, PCBs, and other toxic substances.
At its first public meeting after announcing the plan in mid-April, the agency said Wednesday that it wants to dredge some 4.3 million cubic yards of sediment from the full width of the river bed, take it by barge to be dewatered, and then send it by train to landfills or incinerators in the U.S. or Canada.
Project Manager Alice Yeh told about 200 Newark residents at the city’s Portuguese Sports Club that eight miles of the riverbed would then be capped with sand and stone to contain remaining contaminated material and prevent it from entering the food chain.
The contamination represents a “significant” risk to the health of anyone who eats fish or shellfish from the river, she said.
The proposed volume of sediment, which would be dredged to allow ships to use the river and to prevent flooding, represents about half of the contaminated material in the riverbed.
Crabs and other seafood in the river have been severely contaminated by a toxic cocktail of chemicals including dioxins, which can cause cancer, reproductive problems, and immune system damage; PCBs, which are associated with anemia, liver, and stomach problems; and mercury, which can damage the central nervous system in humans and animals, according to the EPA.
The three chemicals are among eight that the agency has identified as posing the greatest threats to human health and the environment, and which it said are the result of a century of industrialization throughout the Passaic River watershed.
The state has warned anglers for years not to eat any Passaic River seafood because of the risk of cancer. Despite the riverbank warning signs, some people still fish in the river, Yeh said.
After extensive public discussion on options for cleaning up the river, the EPA has stated its preferred alternative, which it said would take five years and cost $1.73 billion. The amount of sediment that would be dredged if the plan is implemented — enough to fill East Rutherford’s MetLife Stadium twice — would make the project among the largest in the history of the federal Superfund program, officials said.
Other options put forward by the agency for public discussion include dredging all 9.7 million cubic yards of contaminated material over 11 years at a cost of $3.25 billion, or capping and dredging the most heavily polluted sections of the river bed in an operation that would take two years and cost $0.61 billion.
The EPA, which announced the outline of its plan in mid-April, expects to complete details of the cleanup plan in early 2015 and will then attempt to negotiate the cost among more than 100 companies that it has identified as “potentially responsible” for discharging contaminants into the river.
“We will negotiate with the potentially responsible parties to give them the opportunity to carry out or pay for the cleanup,” Yeh told NJ Spotlight. “It’s impossible to know how long that will take but it can take a few years.”
Any companies that agree to participate will then have to design their program, and get it approved by the EPA, all of which could take “a few years,” she said. She declined to say how long it might be before the work actually begins.
Even when the dredging and capping work is completed, the river won’t immediately be restored to health, she told the meeting. “The contamination levels in this river are going to take some time to decline after the dredging.”
The studies are part of the EPA’s ongoing cleanup of the Diamond Alkali Superfund site on Lister Avenue in Newark, where the company manufactured the defoliant Agent Orange, a byproduct of which, dioxin, was discharged into the river, the EPA said. The company has become part of Occidental Chemical Corp., and the site is on the agency’s National Priorities list for Superfund sites.
Sixty-seven companies calling themselves the Cooperating Parties Group criticized the EPA’s plan as “massive, impractical and disruptive.” In a press release, the companies said the plan would take decades to implement, would disrupt the local economy by restricting river traffic, and may not protect human health. They said they have no connection with Diamond Alkali.
Instead of the EPA’s plan, CPG is proposing a “Sustainable Remedy” that would remove areas of the highest surface sediment contamination from the river, aiding a process of natural recovery that it said is already occurring.
The CPG plan would be quicker and cheaper than the EPA’s plan, and would meet the agency’s standards for reducing health-related risks, said Jonathan Jaffe, a spokesman for the group.
The EPA’s Yeh said the agency has not evaluated the companies’ plan because they have not provided technical details to support their claims.
The EPA’s recommendation follows a multiyear project that included a study of a 17-mile stretch of the river from Newark Bay to the Dundee Dam in Garfield. The agency determined that contaminated sediment in the lower eight miles was a major source of pollution in the bay and the rest of the river.
The agency will add comments from two further public meetings in Kearny and Belleville and may adjust its plan if significant changes are called for, said David Kluesner, a public affairs officer.
At the Newark meeting, residents and community organizations welcomed the EPA plan, and urged the agency to start it as soon as possible.
“Our river was stolen from us years ago and needs to be returned today,” said Joseph Della Fave, executive director of the Ironbound Community Corp.
He welcomed the plan to make companies rather than taxpayers pay for the cleanup. “It’s time to privatize the costs to be paid by the polluters and socialize the benefits,” he said.