New research could lead to future technologies that clean contaminated sites

Lenny Thomas has called Newark home for more than a decade. He’s had one mission the entire time: to make sure the Passaic River gets cleaned up from a toxic pollutant called dioxin. And he wants to protect his neighbors who crab in the river from the poison.

“It’s much easier to pollute a river than it is to clean it up,” Thomas said. “Right now, if you were to eat a crab, one, it would be a $3,000 fine, but a fine isn’t the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that it is highly poisonous.”

Rutgers Professor Donna Fennell says it causes cancer and developmental problems.

“Dioxin is a molecule that was never made on purpose,” Fennell said. “It’s a molecule that is formed during chemical manufacturing.”

The dioxin in the Passaic River was traced back to a chemical manufacturing plant in the Ironbound district that was producing Agent Orange, which was used during the Vietnam War.

“They’d spray this chemical on the forest and within a day or two, everything would die, so there’d be no longer any cover where people could hide,” Thomas said.

But back in Newark, they were just dumping it.

“What they would do is take this dioxin, it would be in a big pile, they’d shovel it into the river, and it would spread both ways,” he said.

Fennell has been studying the mud in the Passaic River for about five years with a group of students. She says the research has paid off because they discovered for the first time, a link between a particular class of bacteria and its effects in organically converting dioxin to become less toxic in the Passaic River. The type of bacteria is known as dehalococcoidia.

“Actually, oxygen kills them. They live in these sediments of rivers,” she said.

Fennell says her team’s research can potentially lead to the development of future technologies that can use this class of bacteria to remediate all the dioxin from the contaminated locations in the river. But that’s not all.

“Another important part of our work is that we observed the removal of all chlorines from the dioxin molecule and that is fairly new,” Fennell said. “By removing chlorines from dioxin, the organisms are decreasing the toxicity.”

The Environmental Protection Agency isn’t yet aware of Fennell’s findings for now. They say they continue to collect data and expand their investigation as they monitor the flow of the contamination from the facility. They’ve already done two targeted remediations.

“One was completed in 2012. And we removed approximately 40,000 cubic yards of highly contaminated sediments. In 2014, at river mile 10.9, there was a remediation of approximately 16,000 cubic yards of sediment from a mud flat, a shallow area of the river adjacent to a park. We selected a remedy for the lower 8.3 miles in 2016 and we are currently designing that remedy,” said Michael Sivak, chief of the Passaic, Hackensack and Newark Bay Remediation Branch, EPA.

Their full investigation stretches 17 miles of the Passaic River plus all of Newark Bay.

“We’d made progress in as much as people are more aware of what’s going on but there are still people here who don’t really believe,” Thomas said. “They sneak over and bring the coolers, look around, fill it with crabs and sell them or eat them themselves.”

Thomas says he isn’t holding out hope that the river will be ready to legally fish or swim in during his lifetime. But he’s standing guard to make sure it gets done.