New Jersey Says Cleanup Coming to Liberty State Park

Money won in lawsuits against polluters would go to pay for removing contaminated soil, building new parklands
Credit: Shinya Suzuki/Flickr
Liberty State Park

The state is once again vowing to clean up and restore 234 acres of fenced-off, contaminated land within Liberty State Park, this time by using “tens of millions’’ of dollars recovered from polluters.

The emerging proposal from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is intended to create new knolls with spectacular views of Manhattan, Jersey City and the Statue of Liberty while increasing public access to the state’s most popular park.

The proposal to clean up the contaminated acreage — about 40% of the park — revives plans that have been floated for more than two decades but were scrapped for various reasons. One plan was halted back in 1995 because it required the state to allow a golf course to be built on the site.

Making polluters pay for cleanup

On Thursday, the DEP announced that it is planning to utilize funds recovered in lawsuits against polluters for natural-resource damages. Those funds would be used to excavate contaminated fill deposited decades ago then cap it with clean soil and plant trees, grass, and other vegetation.

The plan, only 30% complete, envisions creating several new wildlife-viewing areas and seven miles of new trails and sidewalks, as well as restoring 72 acres of freshwater and  saltwater wetlands.

“Today’s investment will allow us to not only rebuild, but enhance the site while preserving the environment, to provide opportunities for residents to discover and enjoy for generations to come,’’ said Gov. Phil Murphy in a news release announcing the initiative.

Victory over privatization

The announcement also marked a win for park proponents who have often battled this and other administrations over attempts to privatize the 1,100-acre park, most recently by a proposed temporary state budget signed by Murphy that included a provision that could increase privatization of state parks. The governor’s office later denied the provision applied to Liberty State Park, a stance repeated by DEP officials yesterday.

At first glance, park advocates were pleased with the announcement. “It will make the park an international model for urban restoration,’’ said Sam Pesin, president of the Friends of Liberty State Park.

Others called the cleanup plan for the interior of the park long overdue. “We’ve been waiting more than 20 years for this plan,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “We are hoping there’s the political will to get it done.’’

So far, Democratic politicians seem to be lining up behind the plan.

“Ensuring that Liberty State Park remains a protected open space for everyone is essential, but by significantly enhancing it by making large areas that are currently lie behind chained fences, which were polluted during the past industrial age, now open, cleaned and made safe for the use of our residents, and visitors — how do you not applaud this endeavor,’’ said Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.

“Today’s announcement will help future generations better enjoy this rare open-space jewel in a densely populated urban county and one of only two places in the world from which Ellis Island and Lady Liberty can be accessed,’’ said Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson), the chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

Later this month, the agency plans to announce public hearings to gather input from local officials and the public about plans for restoring the area. At a briefing with reporters, DEP officials declined to be more definitive about the tens of millions of dollars that would be spent on cleanup and restoration efforts.

More importantly, the Legislature needs to pass legislation that would establish permanent protections for the park, according to advocates. “The thing that is missing is keeping privatization out of the park and protecting the park for the future,’’ Tittel said.