Hackensack River advocates welcome DEP call for Superfund listing

Federal government may help clean up decades of pollution, supporters say. It would be the first NJ river to get key designation
Credit: (NJDEP)
July 23, 2021: Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette announces state will pursue cleanup of the Lower Hackensack River as a federal Superfund site.

New Jersey took a big step toward getting the federal government involved in cleaning up the heavily polluted Hackensack River when it announced it would seek Superfund designation for a 23-mile stretch of the waterway in Bergen and Hudson counties.

Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette said Friday he will apply for Superfund status, which would, if granted, add federal money and expertise to the badly needed cleanup of a toxic stew of chemicals that lie in the riverbed as a result of more than a century of unregulated industrial discharges.

The river would be the first in New Jersey to be placed on the National Priorities List for cleanup of severely polluted sites even though some parts of the nearby Passaic River are being remediated under the program.

“Designating the Lower Hackensack River as a federal Superfund site will provide the tools we need to remove decades of contamination that have polluted river sediments and restore the natural resources that have been impaired for far too long,” said LaTourette, in a statement.

The riverbed is contaminated with hazardous chemicals including mercury, cadmium, lead, nickel and dioxin — the carcinogenic chemical used to make the defoliant Agent Orange in the 1950s and ’60s — all of which were identified by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tests starting in 2015.

Legacy of heavy pollution

The heavy pollution has killed some wildlife, led to a ban on swimming, and prompted official warnings to limit or avoid consumption of fish caught in the tidal stretch between Oradell Dam and the river’s mouth at Newark Bay.

The DEP’s announcement led some campaigners to warn that the long process of Superfund designation is far from over.

But Bill Sheehan, the Hackensack Riverkeeper, who has worked for a cleanup since founding the nonprofit in 1997, said he was optimistic that the DEP’s endorsement will lead to federal designation.

“I’m absolutely sure now that DEP is on board with EPA, things are going to start moving forward, as rapidly as they are allowed to by law,” he said. “I have to hold out hope that’s going to happen.”

Sheehan based his hopes on pro-environment policies by Democratic administrations in both Trenton and Washington, and on the long experience of Walter Mugdan, acting administrator of the EPA’s Region 2, who he said is well-placed to push for Superfund status for the river.

The Biden factor

“Now that Biden is in, and Mugdan is acting administrator, I wouldn’t be surprised if they accepted the petition and started working on the rulemaking,” Sheehan said in an interview with NJ Spotlight News.

Mugdan himself said New Jersey’s official support for Superfund listing was a “significant step.” He noted in a statement that the river is surrounded by communities that are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation, and that environmental justice is a “priority” for the EPA.

In response to a petition by Sheehan in 2015, the EPA did a preliminary study, and found that stretch of the river has “endured years of resource extraction, habitat loss, alterations, and degradation,” leading to pollution with “numerous” contaminants including volatile organic compounds, pesticides, and metals in the river and its tributaries.

The agency said at the time there were “thousands” of potentially contaminated sites that may have contributed to the contamination of the lower Hackensack watershed, but it pointed to nine within a mile of the river that were already on Superfund’s National Priorities List and whose emissions were consistent with pollution found in the river.

Now, four of the listed sites are believed to have contributed significantly to the contamination, the DEP said. They are the Ventron/Velsicol site in Carlstadt and Wood-Ridge, a mercury processing facility that operated from 1929 to 1974; Universal Oil Products (Chemical Division) in East Rutherford, which processed chemicals from 1930 to 1979; Standard Chlorine, in Kearny, which manufactured and processed chemical products including mothballs and lead-acid batteries from around 1916 to 1993; and Scientific Chemical Processing in Carlstadt, which conducted chemical recovery, processing and storage activities from around 1941 until 1980.

Assigning liability

The EPA’s willingness to do the 2015 study suggests that it is inclined to list the Hackensack, said Jeff Tittel, former director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. But he warned that any listing is still subject to a lengthy public process and could run into litigation from companies that are held to be responsible for the contamination.

“If EPA goes ahead with Superfund, there’s a public process during which liability is assigned to the PRPs [Potentially Responsible Parties], which they tend to fight because there’s a lot of costs involved,” Tittel said. “It’s a big step forward so we’ll see what happens next.”

Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, said the state’s call for Superfund listing is a “critical” step that seemed to signal that it was in step with the federal government on the issue.

“Maybe there’s one more thing to sign but clearly there’s agreement between the EPA and the Murphy administration that lower Hackensack needs a federal superfund designation,” he said.

Blocked by Christie

In 2016, EPA contractors took 400 samples from the riverbed, and found what Sheehan described as a “toxic stew” of contaminants. That should have prompted the DEP to seek Superfund designation at the time but that was blocked by Gov. Chris Christie who may not have wanted a new Superfund site in New Jersey during his presidential campaign, Sheehan said.

Since 2016, DEP has done more studies on the river, leading to its conclusion that a Superfund listing would be the best way of remediating sediments and restoring water quality, it said.

If the EPA lists the river, Sheehan predicted the process won’t be impeded by the river’s polluters — officially known as Potentially Responsible Parties — who will cooperate because of the relationships his organization has nurtured with them over almost a quarter-century.

“Many of the major corporations in northern New Jersey are contributors to Hackensack Riverkeeper,” he said. “They believe in my mission. It would be antithetical for them to believe in my mission and stand up against the EPA on this.”

Even if the EPA lists the river soon, the cleanup process won’t be quick but it will at least offer future generations the prospect of a swimmable, fishable river, Sheehan said.

“This is not going to happen overnight but if we don’t start doing the work now, it could take 150-200 years for the river to self-cleanse and that means that several generations of watershed residents would be denied the use of their waterway,” he said. “By putting it on the Superfund list, even if it takes 20 years to get the cleanup done, that means that several future generations will have beneficial use of their river.”

Credit: (NJDEP)
Map of Hackensack River

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight