On July 23, New Jersey said it is pressing the Biden administration to declare the decades-long polluted Hackensack River as a Superfund site, a federal list of toxic sites.
The highly contaminated Lower Hackensack riverbed stretches 23 miles from the Oradell Reservoir in Bergen County at its north end, to Newark Bay in Hudson County.
According to a 2015 report from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, sediment samples taken from the river have shown highly-elevated levels of cadmium, lead, mercury, dioxin and PBCs, which pose hazards to the human population and local wildlife.
“This area of the Hackensack River was once home to heavy industry, is bounded by known contaminated sites, and its immediate watershed hosts nine Superfund sites impacted by contaminants strikingly similar to those found within the main stem of the Hackensack River itself,” reads a letter from Shawn LaTourette, who heads New Jersey Department of Environmental Commission, addressed to Walter Mugdan, the acting head of EPA’s Region II which includes New Jersey.
The state’s backing of the site for Superfund status is a vital first step to be added to that list of sites, making it available for federal funding and creating the legal standing to hold property owners – like those that polluted the river – financially responsible for the clean-up costs.
That would range from municipal governments to private companies that may have deliberately or accidentally dumped pollutants into the river.
LaTourette, Gov. Phil Murphy’s newly-confirmed pick to head the NJDEP, continued in the letter that many of those responsible parties can and should be directly involved in the clean-up.
“As early as the 1920s, bathing in the Hackensack River was banned by local health officials and to this date, fish consumption … is still prohibited,” LaTourette said during a July 23 morning press conference at Laurel Hill Park in Secaucus.
Just around the riverbend
The site sits toward the south end of the Hackensack River, where many of its tributaries merge into the main branch.
Although there is not yet an official price tag, the nearby Passaic River, which suffered a similar fate throughout the 20th century, has an estimated $1.4 billion clean-up cost.
Efforts to have the Hackensack River declared a Superfund site languished under the Christie era despite prospective support from the Obama EPA, and then suffered under the Trump administration.
Now, Democrats control the White House and both the legislative and executive branches in Trenton.
“I have been working on getting this designation for the river since 2015. Now everything is lining up,” said Bill Sheehan, head of the local environmental advocacy group the Hackensack Riverkeeper.
There are four Superfund sites in the Meadowlands region which feed into the Hackensack River’s pollution. The first is the Ventron/Velsicol site in Carlstadt and Wood Ridge, which processed mercury between 1929 and 1974.
The second is Universal Oil Products in East Rutherford, a chemical processing plant in operation between 1930 and 1979. The third is the chemical plant Standard Chlorine in Kearny, which produced lead-acid batteries and mothballs between 1916 and 1993. And the last is Scientific Chemical Processing, also in Carlstadt, a chemical recovery, processing and storage plant open between 1941 and 1980.