Passaic River cleanup timeline accelerated after new agreement, officials say

By: - October 4, 2021 12:45 pm

Sen. Cory Booker called the Passaic River “one of the state’s biggest crime scenes,” saying pollution represents hundreds of billions of dollars of lost opportunity. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Federal and state environmental protection officials announced a plan to clean superfund contaminants from a nine-mile portion of the polluted Passaic River in what is expected to be the costliest remediation effort in the program’s history.

The actual cleanup of the Diamond Alkali superfund site is still likely years away, but members of the state’s congressional delegation, along with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and the New Jersey Department of Environmental protection, on Monday hailed the new plan as an extraordinary step toward the river’s eventual reclamation and to righting wrongs that disproportionately impacted New Jerseyans of color.

“For about 30 years in the mid-20th century, Diamond Alkali and other companies manufacturing pesticides, herbicides, and even the chemical components to make Agent Orange treated the Passaic River as their go-to dumping ground for hazardous waste,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat. “All too often, it was families in our minority communities whose health was flat-out disregarded.”

Construction on a water treatment plant key to the remediation plan isn’t expected to start until 2023, and dredging of the heavily polluted river likely won’t begin until a year later.

But EPA Region 2 Acting Administrator Walter Mugdan said Monday’s announcement would see 387,000 cubic yards of contaminated material cleaned years ahead of previous forecasts.

Officials were unable to say Monday when it would become safe to fish or swim in the river, adding wildlife in the waterway could still be recovering decades after contaminants were removed.

The superfund site is named for the Diamond Alkali Company, a defunct pesticide manufacturer whose operations contaminated both the soil beneath its Newark manufacturing plant and a 17-mile portion of the Passaic River, with other contaminants found in the Newark Bay, the Arthur Kill strait, and the Kill Van Kull strait.

The plant produced components of Agent Orange — the defoliant known for its use in the Vietnam War and the birth defects that its use caused — and other pesticides that leached the toxic chemical dioxin into the surrounding land and waterways.

“What the Passaic River is now is one of the state’s biggest crime scenes,” said Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat and former Newark mayor. “Hundreds of billions of dollars worth of lost opportunity, measured in economic terms, but the spiritual loss — the theft — was even greater.”

The Diamond Alkali cleanup, projected to cost more than $1.8 billion, is poised to be the most expensive remediation in the history of the superfund program, though officials don’t believe the government will bear the cost.

“We expect 100% of the costs to come from the polluters,” Mugdan said.

Cleanup costs for the nine-mile portion of river are estimated at $441 million. Officials previously announced it would cost $1.4 billion to clean up a more-polluted 8.3-mile stretch.

The cleanups are expected to proceed in parallel, and both tracts will benefit from the water treatment plant, for which a site has not yet been chosen. The eventual site will likely fall closer to the lower stretch of river.

Dredged materials will be taken to the facility, which will separate and scrub water from contaminated settlements. The contaminated material will be dried and transmitted to disposal facilities around the country.

The companies responsible for the pollution — or, in many cases, their corporate successors — are expected to foot the bill for dredging as well, though environmental agencies will first have to secure a legal agreement to that effect.

While hundreds of firms have been noticed or sued over the Diamond Alkali superfund, a handful of large firms are expected to pay for the bulk of the cleanup, Mugdan said. That outcome would have been unthinkable in the past.

“25 years ago, nobody thought we’d be this far. They laughed. People actually laughed us to talk about it,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-09), adding he’d ensure “the folks who screwed it up unscrew it.”

An earlier version of this story misstated the number of cubic yards of contaminated material expected to be cleaned up.


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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.