308 Passaic River Pollution Wheeler Antabnez
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is embarking on a 10-year $1.38 billion project to remove toxins from the lower eight miles of the Passaic River. The project will remove about 3.5 million cubic yards of poisonous sediment–enough to fill Newark’s Red Bull Arena about three times over.

“The Passaic River has been seriously damaged by over a century of pollution. Extraordinarily high concentrations of dioxin, PCBs, heavy metals and pesticides have robbed the people of New Jersey from being able to use this natural resource. The EPA’s cleanup plan will improve water quality, protect public health, revitalize waterfront areas and create hundreds of new jobs. This plan is one of the most comprehensive in the nation and will help restore a badly damaged river,” said Judith A. Enck, EPA Regional Administrator.

The lower eight miles of the Passaic is the most heavily contaminated section of the river. Ninety percent of the volume of contaminated sediment is in the area targeted for clean up.

EPA expects the program to take four years to plan and six years to execute. It will affect an area running from Newark Bay to the Belleville-Newark border. The agency intends to cap the bottom of the river with sand to prevent any remaining pollution from leaching back into the waterway.

Deadly Chemical Cocktail Includes Dioxin from Agent Orange Production

A major source of dioxin in the river was pollution from the former Diamond Alkali facility in Newark, where the production of Agent Orange and other pesticides during the 1960s generated dioxin that contaminated the land and the river, according to the EPA. Fish and shellfish in the lower Passaic and Newark Bay are highly contaminated with mercury, PCBs and dioxin. Fisheries along the river have long been closed due to the contamination. Catching crabs is prohibited, as is consumption of fish and crab taken from the Lower Passaic River.

The Superfund program mandates that polluters pay for the clean up efforts, rather than taxpayers. EPA has identified about 100 companies responsible for the pollution. Work on the river won’t start until negotiations with those companies are finalized.

In 2013, the EPA oversaw dredging of approximately 16,000 cubic yards of highly contaminated sediment from a half-mile stretch of the Passaic River that runs by Riverside County Park North in Lyndhurst, New Jersey. This area is located about 11 miles north of the river mouth and is outside of the scope of the $1.38 billion project.

EPA dredging contaminated sediment from the Passaic River by Riverside County Park North in Lyndhurst.
EPA dredging Passaic River by Riverside County Park North in Lyndhurst.

“It’s good they’re doing something,” says Wheeler Antabanez, who has canoed on the Passaic for years and has written articles and produced videos about the river. “The pollution is so severe they have to do something and if the polluters are the ones paying for it, we should go in there. But it’s not going to be enough. The river is contaminated for 17 miles to Dundee dam. Just cleaning the lower eight miles is absurd. You’re going to have contaminants moving up and down stream. The pollution will keep shifting back and forth. I saw them do the Lyndhurst dredge. They put in a sand cap and a year later quite a bit of the sand was either gone, or covered by fresh mud.”

Cleaning up the old pollution is only part of the solution, says Antabanez because new sewage continues to be dumped into the river. “I’ve canoed on sections of the river and you can see brown sludge coming out of pipes on the riverbanks. The mud along the Passaic smells like human waste.”

Waste draining into the Passaic river.
Waste draining into the Passaic river.

For more on the Passaic River’s history, check out this National Public Radio report.

Photos: Wheeler Antabanez