EPA announcing cleanup

NEWARK -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday its $1.4 billion plan to clean up the most polluted portion of the Passaic River, an area made so unhealthy from corporate dumping that people are forbidden from eating the carcinogenic fish and crabs that come from it.

Friday's announcement of the project, which may generate over 500 jobs and which officials said will not be paid for by taxpayers, was tempered by criticism from the Sierra Club, and righteous anger from former U.S. Senator Cory Booker over what corporations did to the river and Newark in the first place.

Also, EPA officials cautioned, this project to clean up the lower eight miles of the river, will take over 11 years, and even then the fish won't immediately be safe to consume.

And, while the plan calls for the cleanup to be paid for by the 100 companies responsible for polluting the river with an array of chemicals, those companies have not yet signed up to do this, they said.

The negotiation part of the process could take one year, EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck. The designs and dredging will take another 10 years, she said.

The actual plan calls for sediment to be dewatered, transported by train for disposal, and the entire lower eight miles to be "capped," meaning a sand and stone barrier of about two feet will be laid above the contaminated sediment remaining after dredging.

"Eleven years may seem like a long time, but remember, we are cleaning up over a century of toxic pollution," Enck said.

Enck spoke to reporters at a packed press conference attended by government and community officials from Newark and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Also, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin, representing Governor Chris Christie; Booker; and U.S. Senator Bob Menendez heralded the EPA's work.

Among the 100 toxic chemicals that have caused health concerns for Newark residents is dioxin, a byproduct of the pesticide Agent Orange that was used during the Vietnam War and was produced by the former Diamond Alkali facility in Newark, Enck said.

According to EPA officials, short-term exposure to dioxin can cause skin lesions and altered liver function, and long-term exposure can cause reproductive and developmental problems, disruptive hormone function, damage to the immune system and thyroid function, and cancer.

Officials said that the pollution in general was also linked to asthma. Booker, who called the issue an example of "greed" and "sin," said that there may also be a link to autism.

For Joseph Della Fave, the director of the Ironbound Community Corporation, which represents Newark citizens, the issue of pollution in Newark has long been one of "environmental racism."

He noted that the pollutants entered people's homes after flooding during Hurricane Sandy.

"There's an inordinate amount of contaminants, pollution, and the major sources of pollution in communities of low-income, disenfranchised, people of color communities such as Newark," he said.

"In Ironbound, the state's largest garbage incinerator, the world's greatest concentration of dioxin... It's an old industrial community, but it's always been an immigrant community. Newark, in the 50s and 60s, it became largely an African-American community. Dumping those facilities here, as opposed to elsewhere, became a practice."

Like Della Fave, Debbie Mans, executive director of NY/NJ Baykeeper, is also on board with the plan.

"The only statement we should be hearing from the polluting companies now is 'When can we start this cleanup and return the Passaic River back to the community?'" she said. "The communities along the lower Passaic River have waited for over 30 years, since the first listing of this site onto Superfund, for a cleanup."

However, not everyone is on board with the plan.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, issued a statement saying that, "just like in Flint, Michigan, this clean-up is about political expedience, not doing what is right for the Passaic River."

"The EPA's clean-up plan will not work because it will only cap the pollution," he said.

"The 8.3 miles are only being dredged 2.5 feet instead of 12 to 30 feet needed to remove the contaminants. All caps fail and when the river floods, it will erode and cause the cap to wash toxic sediments into the river. The EPA has undercut its original clean-up plans so the responsible parties would approve it...before the end of the Obama Administration."

Enck responded to criticism from the Sierra Club saying that the two agencies "disagree."

After the press conference, a man who manages a Newark parking lot said he was pleased by the news -- until he learned that it would take over 11 years.

He said that he could smell the Passaic River as he passed it, and he thought the smell had gotten "worse" in recent years. In response to the prospect of the project bringing jobs to the city, he asked "Are they temporary?"