Environmentalists welcomed new federal plans to study how birds, fish and other creatures have been affected by decades of pollution in the lower Passaic River at Newark, saying the assessment will make it easier to spread the cost of cleaning the river among corporate polluters.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said last month they will soon start to study the impact on natural resources from the severe contamination of a 17-mile stretch of the river by pollutants including dioxin, an extremely toxic byproduct of Agent Orange, a defoliant the U.S. military used during the Vietnam War.
The agencies plan to assess how the pollution has impacted the natural resources; seek to recover damages from the responsible parties, and work to restore the environment. They will invite corporations that may have contributed to the contamination to cooperate in the assessment, which they said can speed restoration and reduce costs.
The assessment of natural resource damages (NRD) — which is separate from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s planned cleanup — represents a step forward in the long-running saga over how to clean the heavily polluted river, and who should pay for it, environmental advocates said.
“The analysis of the NRD damage was desperately needed so that we can hold the polluters accountable for the full environmental damages,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “Accurate data on the damages helps to strengthen the case to get all accountable parties to pay up.”
Without the NRD assessment, it’s easier for polluters to avoid paying for the cleanup, he said.
The tidal lower section of the river from the Dundee Dam to its confluence with the Hackensack River is part of a Superfund site named after Diamond Alkali, the company that made Agent Orange at Lister Avenue in Newark in the 1950s and ‘60s. The site has been on the EPA’s National Priorities list for Superfund sites since 1984.
One of the polluters, Occidental Chemical Corp., which took over Diamond Alkali, agreed to pay $165 million toward the cleanup in a 2016 agreement with the EPA. But that’s just a fraction of the $1.4 billion that the agency has calculated as the cost of its plan to contain polluted sediment in the river bed with a layer of mesh weighted down by rocks. The EPA is expected to begin its work next year.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, welcomed the assessment as a “good start” that would help build the NRD case by federal and state governments. He predicted the study will show that the EPA should do a full cleanup of the river by removing polluted sediment rather than capping it, as planned.
The river has been off-limits to swimmers and boaters for decades, and state and federal agencies have warned the public not to eat fish and shellfish caught there. The contaminants, which also include mercury and PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, can have long-lasting effects on human health, are especially harmful to women of child-bearing age, and can cause developmental problems in children, according to the EPA.
Meagan Racey, a spokeswoman for USFWS, said officials will begin this spring to look at losses to specific resources such as birds and fish to determine what’s needed to restore those populations, at no cost to taxpayers. She declined to say how long the process would take.
Assessing damage ‘can take years’
“Natural resource damage assessment for sites as large and complex as the Diamond Alkali Superfund Site can take years to complete,” Racey said in a statement. “The ultimate goal of this assessment process is to restore natural resources impacted by the releases of hazardous substances, and to replace natural resource services that were lost while the natural resources were impaired.”
Racey said there are more than 100 potentially responsible parties (PRPs).
The study is authorized under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), which requires the cleanup of hazardous substances such as those at the Diamond Alkali site, and allows the two agencies to act on behalf of the public to recover damages to the natural resources.
The EPA and the state of New Jersey are continuing to assess the extent of contamination in the river, but their efforts are focused on protecting human health by cleaning up the river, rather than the damage to natural resources, she said.
The PRPs include 67 companies that formed the Cooperating Parties Group, which in 2014 condemned the EPA’s cleanup plan as “massive, impractical and disruptive.” The group did not respond to a request for comment on the natural resource assessment.