The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to embark on a years-long clean-up project of the northern 8.3 miles of the Passaic River, widely considered one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country.
EPA officials estimate the price tag to sit around $441 million, but that could climb to much higher. All of it would be paid for by the private companies that are legally responsible for the pollution, said Walter Mugdan, the deputy regional administrator for EPA’s Region 2, which covers New Jersey.
The cost of the lower 9 miles in Essex and Hudson counties is already estimated to be $1.4 billion, according to the 2014 plan for that southern stretch, and “hundreds of millions of dollars” have been spent already, Mugdan added.
Pollution of the river stems back to the Diamond Alkali site, a former chemical plant and now a Superfund site based in the Ironbound section of Newark. The Passaic River snakes through Bergen, Passaic and Essex counties.
The location has been listed as a Superfund site for decades, and it could still be decades more before the river is fully safe and ready for fishing and swimming.
All told, the clean-up of the 17-mile Passaic River would be the most expensive project in the 41-year history of the federal program.
“The Passaic has served New Jersey well, supporting industry activity. That 100-year industry came with a price: a legacy of pollution in the lower 17 miles of the Passaic River,” Janet McCabe, EPA’s deputy administrator, said during a remotely-held press conference this morning.
Pesticides and herbicides manufactured along the river banks and at the Diamond Akali facility have heavily polluted the river, lacing the sediment with cancer-causing dioxin, PCBs, mercury, copper, lead, pesticides and dozens of other chemicals and heavy metals.
In the 1960s during the Vietnam War, Dioxin was a typically-produced byproduct at the site for the production of Agent Orange.
The chemicals have affected households, parties and communities, typically Black and Brown and lower-income, along the riverbank.
“I hear stories from older Newarkers who remember the days that their … grandparents used to fish there, go crabbing and swim but sadly those days are no more,” U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat and Newark’s mayor between 2006 and 2013.
The clean-up of the lower nine miles calls for the dredging and removal of 3.5 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment, and 387,000 cubic yards in the upper 8.3 miles.
Some of the contaminated sediment would be capped under a barrier, which in the wake of river-flooding from Hurricane Ida and future climate change storms, needs to be built with much higher resilience, Mugdan said.
For the rest, the sediment would be sent to the treatment plant, where water would be separated and cleaned, and then put back in the river.
Solids would be dried out, stored and shipped out to permanent storage sites designed to handle the contaminated materials.
EPA officials are hoping that clean-up of the two halves of the river would overlap so as to avoid or at least limits such as bridge openings and river traffic. They would build a temporary treatment facility around 2023 in either Essex or Hudson county, Mugdan said, after which dredging would start on the lower half of the river.