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EPA’s massive $1.7 billion Passaic River cleanup may face hurdles

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NEWARK, N.J. (PIX11)– It’s the biggest environmental cleanup in Environmental Protection Agency history, but the EPA’s announcement on Friday that the lower eight miles of the Passaic River will become fishable and swimmable again has a way to go before any removal of the waterway’s many toxins can begin.

“We are standing before, right now, about New Jersey’s biggest crime scene,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D) as he stood in front of the Passaic at a ceremony Friday afternoon announcing the river cleanup. “This river was beaten, was brutalized, was assaulted, was poisoned and was left for dead,” said Booker.

garbage

The Environmental Protection Agency announced a multi-billion dollar cleanup of the Passaic River. (PIX11)

Until being elected to the U.S. Senate last November, Booker had been mayor of Newark for the previous seven years.

In that capacity, he’d worked extensively with groups and activists who have tried to get the waterway, which is an EPA Superfund cleanup site, cleaned up.

Booker was at the riverfront ceremony Friday afternoon with a panel of heavy political hitters, including fellow senator Bob Menendez, three local members of congress and other major environmental policymakers.

They each declared that the Passaic will be cleaned, but some of them admitted that it may take work and time.

For well over a century, some 100 industrial companies have dumped their waste into the Passaic, which runs past Newark as well as more than a dozen other North Jersey towns.

Over 90 percent of the river’s most toxic pollutants are sitting in its last eight miles before it enters Newark Bay, according to the EPA.

Most of the muck on the river bottom, 4.3 million cubic yards, or enough to fill MetLife Stadium twice over, according to the EPA, will be dredged under the agency’s plan.

The river’s bottom and its embankments would then be covered with a cap made of stone and sand, shore to shore, at a cost of at least $1.7 billion.

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The project is expected to take between 2 to 3 years. (PIX11)

The process won’t be done overnight, by any means.

“It’s going to take two to three years to design this project,” said Ray Basso, the EPA director for the Lower Passaic area. “It’s probably going to take before that a year to negotiate a settlement with the responsible parties who have to pay for it.”

He likened Friday’s cleanup announcement to winning Game 1 of the World Series, and said he expects the rest of the series, if you will, to take at least “four years before we can actually get in and dredge.”

The tab for the dredging and revitalization effort is supposed to be paid for by the historic polluters, according to the Superfund Law. The regional administrator for the EPA said that there are strong incentives for that to occur as soon as possible.

“If the polluters don’t do the cleanup,” said Judith Enck, “the EPA has the legal authority to do it and then charge them, and charge them three times the cost. So we fully expect that we’re going to get this done within the decade.”

The industrial companies, however, have got a different proposal.

“We have a plan to get rid of these [environmental] hotspots on the river,” said Jonathan Jaffe, a spokesperson for the Cooperative Parties Group, or CPG, a consortium of 67 companies determined by the EPA to have contributed to the river’s pollution made by PCBs, DDT and other toxins.

CPG’s proposal would clean up specific pollution sites along the lower 17 miles of the Passaic River, rather than focus on its last 8 miles, as the EPA is doing. Jaffe said that his group’s intention is “to put in these out of river projects within five to six years, which is a big difference [from the EPA proposal] and it’s not going to be nowhere near as disruptive.”

New Jersey has the highest number of EPA Superfund sites in the country, and the Passaic is the largest and most toxic of all New Jersey sites, according to EPA studies. Agent Orange, a highly toxic defoliant used to clear jungle battle zones during the Vietnam War, was among the many toxins produced along the river.

While the EPA and the CPG both have plans for cleanup, the two sides are far apart. Negotiations between the two parties will begin as soon as possible, but during the cleanup’s announcement, more than one speaker who addressed the assembled group of activists, residents and political supporters said that a court battle could be expected.