Passaic River cleanup still a long way off

Passaic River cleanup still a long way off

Source:, April 16, 2014
By: Scott Fallon

It is touted as the largest Superfund cleanup ever, one that will remove 4.3 million cubic yards of sediment contaminated with a stew of pollutants from the Passaic River and even make it safe for people to fish there again without significantly raising their risk of cancer.

This was the pledge from federal officials last week as they unveiled with great fanfare a $1.7 billion cleanup to be paid by more than 100 companies that either polluted the waterway or inherited the liability of past polluters.

But the road to a Superfund cleanup is long and full of twists, and it sometimes falls short of its goals.

Since the federal Superfund program was launched three decades ago, only four of the 14 sites in Bergen and Passaic counties have been fully remediated. Eight sites — including the Passaic River — have been on the list for more than 25 years.

Court battles with polluters and the complexity of removing toxic chemicals from soil and water have long been blamed for the glacial pace of cleanups. Since the time between the announcement of a cleanup plan and when work actually begins is often several years, the scope of a Superfund cleanup usually changes due to everything from technology upgrades to the discovery of more pollution to lobbying by the polluters.

Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency said this week they are confident that the plan for the Passaic River will be carried out as advertised.

It includes dredging enough sediment polluted with cancer-causing dioxin, PCBs, mercury and other contaminants to fill MetLife Stadium twice. That amount, 4.3 million cubic yards, is all but locked in. Despite its vast scale, the project is the least amount of work that can be done to lower the cancer risk to an acceptable level, EPA officials said.

“We get right to the lower end of protectiveness so really we can’t do any less than what is in our plan,” said Ray Basso, an EPA official who is overseeing the Passaic cleanup. “It’s not debatable at this point. There is no wiggle room.”

Facing opposition

But officials acknowledge there is fierce opposition by some of the 100 polluters who are on the hook to pay for the most expensive toxic cleanup in U.S. history. A group of 67 companies have already spent millions over the years fighting against the cleanup, going so far as to solicit letters of support from public officials and community leaders as well as counties and non-profit organizations.

Instead of the EPA’s plan for full-scale dredging, the group wants to remove contamination from hot spots in the river, work that would cost about $1 billion less than the EPA’s plan.

A spokesman for the group said they will continue to push their proposal.

Still, the Passaic River cleanup is further along than many Superfund sites in North Jersey, some of which have been plagued by inattention and questionable decisions by the EPA.

  • A cleanup plan has still not been completed for Fair Lawn’s Well Field, despite the fact that the site has been on the Superfund list since 1983, that the borough’s drinking water supply needs to constantly be stripped of harmful chemicals, and that the EPA has identified three deep-pocketed companies — Eastman Kodak, Fisher Scientific and Sandvik Inc. — responsible for the pollution.
  • In Ringwood, federal officials pledged almost a decade ago that they would force Ford Motor Co. to clean up an ocean of paint sludge the company’s contractors dumped near a neighborhood. Residents were angered recently when the EPA said it would allow the vast majority of the paint sludge to remain if the town followed through on plans to build a recycling center at the Superfund site.
  • In Edgewater, the EPA’s plans to entomb coal tar and arsenic at the Quanta Resources Superfund site instead of removing it has drawn community opposition and concerns that it could continue to leach into the Hudson River.

Remediation plans tend to languish for years when the EPA and polluters are fundamentally split. Nowhere did that happen more than on the Hudson River, where environmental officials battled General Electric Co. for 30 years to clean up the PCBs it dumped into the waterway making it a Superfund site for 200 miles.

The company was steadfast in its refusal to dredge the river, going so far as to sue the federal government over the constitutionality of the Superfund program. GE lost those battles and was eventually left with few options. It agreed to dredging and has now spent $1 billion on a multiyear cleanup.

Still, GE was able to do a smaller and cheaper cleanup than the EPA initially proposed. Even after the EPA had ordered the company to dredge 2.65 million cubic yards of sediment in 2002, GE was able to persuade the agency six years later to agree to the removal of about a third less.

“We still had to stay very vigilant to make sure they removed everything they were committed to,” said Phillip Musegaas, a director and attorney at the Hudson Riverkeeper environmental advocacy group. “Once they go out in the field and find different circumstances, there is some flexibility built into the process. But they can’t just make decisions to save costs. There has to be science behind it.”

Because of the studies and preparation needed for the Passaic River cleanup, the work is years away from beginning. Basso said the science and technology can change by that time. So the exact volume to be removed can change as well as the methods of dredging and the final cost of the project.

Still, the level of protection of public health won’t change, he said.

“We can’t negotiate that away,” Basso said. “I’ve spent 30 years in the Superfund program. Ninety-nine percent of the parties, especially ones that have the money, do come to the table.”

Settled in the courts

If the companies refuse to do the cleanup as the EPA prescribes, the agency can take them to court. EPA officials said courts often side with them because the law that established the Superfund program is very strong.

But a court battle can be lengthy. And polluters have a number of ways at stalling proceedings. This includes attempts at bringing in other entities and designating them as responsible for the contamination – a strategy already used by some of the companies involved in the contamination of the Passaic River.

In 2005, the state Department of Environmental Protection sued two companies, which owned a Newark factory that dumped cancer-causing dioxin into the river under different owners, for not moving fast enough on a separate cleanup of the Passaic.

Tierra Solutions Inc. and Maxus Energy Corp., filed a countersuit in 2009 claiming 300 other parties, including more than 70 municipalities, bore some of the responsibility for polluting the river.

Part of the case wasn’t settled until late last year — eight years after the initial lawsuit — with the third parties paying $35 million and the companies paying $130 million, both to the state. The state is still seeking money from a third company, Occidental Chemical Corp.

Part of the case wasn’t settled until late last year — eight years after the initial lawsuit — with the third parties paying $35 million and the companies paying $130 million, both to the state. The state is still seeking money from a third company, Occidental Chemical Corp.

Some of the companies responsible for the Passaic pollution are very recognizable, deep-pocketed corporations including: Benjamin Moore, CBS, DuPont, Hess, Honeywell, Otis Elevator, Pfizer, Sherwin-Williams, Stanley Black & Decker, and Tiffany & Co. Environmentalists say there is added pressure on those companies because of the negative publicity a refusal to participate in the cleanup could generate.

“These are companies with brand recognition,” said Debbie Mans, co-chairwoman of a community group advising the EPA on the project. “Are they really going to walk away from this? Are they really going to tell their customers they aren’t going to do this? It’s not like they can’t pay.”

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