Occidental to Pay $165 million Toward EPA’s Cleanup of Passaic River Pollution

Jon Hurdle | October 6, 2016 | Energy & Environment
Actual removal of thousands of pounds of contaminants will not begin until 2020 and could take six years to complete

Passaic River
The long-awaited cleanup of a severely polluted stretch of the lower Passaic River in Newark moved a step closer on Wednesday when federal officials announced an agreement with the company that is legally responsible for a major source of contamination at the Superfund site.

Occidental Chemical Corp. agreed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to pay $165 million to design the cleanup of chemicals including dioxin, a highly toxic substance used by the former Diamond Alkali factory to make the defoliant Agent Orange in the 1960s.

Judith Enck, the EPA’s Region 2 Administrator, said Occidental will work with the agency on sampling, engineering, and technology over the next four years ahead of the actual cleanup that is expected to take a further six years.

“This agreement is a milestone in getting the Passaic River cleaned up,” Enck said in a statement. “It is an example of how Superfund is designed to work – those responsible for the contamination pay for the work, rather than taxpayers.”

Enck told reporters during a conference call that the agency is also seeking agreements with about 100 other companies that bear some responsibility for the contamination of sediment and fish, and are expected to contribute to the cleanup of the lower 8.3 miles of the river from Newark Bay to the Newark/Belleville border.

She denied that Occidental’s financial commitment was a “drop in the bucket” compared with the estimated $1.38 billion total cost of the cleanup, and expressed confidence that the other companies responsible will contribute to the initiative either voluntarily or through an EPA requirement.

“What we are announcing today is the one singular engineering and design approach for the lower 8.3 miles that will be paid for by Occidental Chemical,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that the other 100 potentially responsible parties aren’t on the hook for some of these costs. We will apportion liability … for the whole cleanup project, not just the design.”

In March the EPA notified a number of the parties of their potential liability for cleanup costs.

Enck said the decade-long project should be seen in the context of a much longer period when industry contaminated the river with PCBs, pesticides and heavy metals, as well as dioxin. “We are cleaning up over a century of pollution,” she said.

The cleanup, whose details were first announced in March, aims to remove some 24,000 pounds of mercury, 6,600 pounds of PCBs, 1,300 pounds of the banned pesticide DDT, and 13 pounds of dioxin from the river bed; the river will be dredged and capped bank-to-bank to prevent the escape of remaining contaminants.

In all, 3.5 million cubic yards of sediment — enough to fill the nearby Red Bull stadium three times over — will be removed, dewatered, and shipped by rail to an out-of-state processing plant, officials said.

The operation will be among the EPA’s biggest-ever dredging exercises but it will not automatically mean that people will be able to swim in the river or eat fish caught there. “It’s going to be quite some time before we reach the goal of swimmable, fishable water in the Passaic,” Enck said.

Debbie Mans, executive director of the environmental group New York-New Jersey Baykeeper, called the Occidental agreement a “good first step” but said other polluters now need to step up and contribute to the cleanup. “It is time for the remaining polluters to stop paying their lobbyists and lawyers and start paying for the cleanup of the river,” Mans wrote in an email.

She said most of the community organizations that have been looking for cleanup solutions since 2009 have backed the EPA’s plan after examining scientific data and modeling results.

But Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the EPA should be dredging
all 17 miles of the river from Newark Bay to Dundee Dam that comprise the Diamond Alkali Superfund site rather than the lower 8.3 miles that is the most heavily polluted stretch. He also said the operation should remove between 12 and 30 feet of sediment from the river bed to extract all toxins, rather than the 2.5 feet planned by the EPA.

Tittel repeated his earlier criticism, made when the cleanup was first announced, that the plan to cap the river bed was not a proven technique for isolating contaminants. “Capping is cheaper but for a river that is tidal and floods, it is only a matter of time before it will fail,” he said. “The people living in Newark and along the Passaic River have waited 40 years for a real clean-up and it looks like we will be waiting more.”

Occidental, which is legally responsible for the Diamond Alkali pollution after a series of mergers, welcomed the agreement. “We look forward to partnering with the agency on the remedial design for the clean-up of the lower 8.3 miles of the Passaic River,” said Eric Moses, a spokesman for the company.

In 2014, Occidental agreed to pay New Jersey $190 million to resolve its liability for contamination in the Passaic River. The agreement was part of a total $355 million that the state recovered from three Passaic River settlements.