Black mayonnaise—that’s how they describe the nasty stuff at the bottom of the Passaic River as it winds through Newark’s Ironbound section. It is a good image for this gooey mixture of sand and mud that contains a witches’ brew of toxic chemicals and compounds left over from a time, not so long ago, when this historic river was treated like an open sewer.
Federal environmental officials declared this section of the Passaic toxic nearly 30 years ago and vowed to hold the companies that caused the pollution responsible for cleaning it up. Nothing in the way of remediation has happened since, but one day this spring, an excavator on a floating barge is expected to dunk its claw deep into a walled-off section of the murky waters at Lister Avenue and dredge up the first bucket of this inky mayo. The polluted gunk will be dumped into a separator to screen out debris, then sent through a pipeline to a processing plant downriver where it will be squeezed dry. The remaining contaminated sediment will be packed in a steel container, loaded onto a rail car and shipped west for permanent disposal.
That action will mark the long-awaited beginning of the presumed end of one of the most egregious cases of industrial pollution in the nation’s history, and the tentative victory of a hard-pressed community that refused to die.
The Ironbound is a gritty corner of Newark that has somehow managed, with the muscle of its Portuguese newcomers and the loyalty of its old timers, to be one part of the city that outsiders, lured by its famed restaurants, still visit without hesitation. It ought to be celebrating the promise of the Passaic’s recovery—and it is, sort of. But forgive Ironbound’s residents if they are not setting off fireworks. Although the cleanup is about to get under way, the wrangling over the full extent of the decontamination is still going strong, with no end in sight. Big as the Lister Avenue project is—it will take more than a year to complete and will cost an estimated $80 million to remove 40,000 cubic yards of muck—it is just a drop in the bucket of what will turn out to be one of the largest river cleanups ever in the United States.
Even by the gargantuan standards of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which has overseen disaster remediation at Love Canal in upstate New York, Times Beach in Missouri, and elsewhere, the Passaic River project is awesome, as complex as anyone can remember and more expensive than almost any other cleanup ever attempted. It also marks a paradigm shift for the country’s environmental efforts, a movement away from comparatively straightforward land cleanup to vastly more complicated efforts in running water. Along with the Hudson River, the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek in New York City, the Passaic represents a new set of challenges.
After years of study, the EPA says it’s possible that eight miles of river from the mouth of Newark Bay up to North Arlington in Bergen County will have to be scooped out like a giant kitty-litter box, perhaps riverbank to riverbank, at a cost of up to $3 billion. As much as 11 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment might need to be hauled up from the river bottom, a mountain range of muck that would fill the old Giants Stadium almost five times over and would dwarf the 2.6 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment that will be dredged from 40 miles of the Hudson River above Troy, New York, in the cleanup of industrial PCBs now under way there.
The lower eight miles of the Passaic is just the start. Separate studies are under way for a far larger stretch of river and for Newark Bay itself. In all, EPA officials think it could be 15 years or longer before the Passaic can be considered clean. That’s a long time for people in the Ironbound to wait. And that helps explain their reserve.
“What we have now is a good start, but we don’t want to get too excited about it,” says Ana I. Baptista, the environmental and planning program director of the Ironbound Community Corporation, which has long crusaded for the river. Baptista is a relative newcomer to the fight. A lifelong resident, she was only seven years old when the contamination was discovered. Now that she is expecting her second child, she is anxious to see things resolved.
“I don’t want to leave the next generation holding the same bag of toxins,” she says. “I feel a sense of urgency about moving forward.”
Neither mighty nor noble, the Passaic nonetheless elicits extreme reactions. Bob Martin, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, has called the Passaic “one of the most severely contaminated waterways in the world.” Judith Enck, administrator of EPA’s Region 2 (which includes New Jersey and New York), says the Passaic is “the site I most worry about in the region” because of the toxicity of the contamination, the sheer volume of hazardous material and its proximity to so many people. The Passaic is perhaps best known for its floods. Some towns along its banks—Little Falls and Wayne in particular—are swamped whenever it rains hard. But the Passaic is more than floods. It is a reflection of the state’s industrial roots, a cradle of enterprise for 200 years. Unfortunately, the businesses that sprang up on the Passaic’s banks laced the river with chemicals and deadly compounds. Industry has largely disappeared. The pollution has not.
Nearly a quarter of the river’s entire 80-mile length is considered badly polluted, but the worst contamination is in the Ironbound, and the fight to get it cleaned up began there. On Lister Avenue, not far from the Covanta trash-burning incinerator and the Pulaski Skyway, is a squat mound of gravel where the Diamond Alkali chemical plant once stood. From 1951 to 1969, the plant was under contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to produce Agent Orange, the powerful defoliant used as a weapon during the Vietnam War. Dioxin, which the EPA categorizes as a likely carcinogen, is a by-product of Agent Orange production. Sustained exposure to large amounts of dioxin can cause chloracne and other skin rashes, and is suspected of leading to cancer and possibly developmental problems in children. Former employees and residents who sued the company claimed to be suffering from a variety of illnesses linked to dioxin. In 1992, the company settled the case for $1 million but did not admit any liability.
Tests on the site in the 1980s found dioxin levels that were 51,000 times higher than federal standards. Diamond Alkali was put on the national Superfund list in 1984. The buildings were demolished, and in 2001 the contaminated debris was buried on-site. It remains there, under the gravel, forming what people along the river know as the “monument to pollution.” The site is off-limits to the public, and ground-water extraction and treatment-systems filters run constantly to pull water away from the river and treat it, so contaminants can’t leach back into the river. With the debris buried, local residents may have thought the site was clean, but that was hardly the end of this saga. Investigators also had found dioxin—a lot of it—in the river adjacent to the Diamond Alkali plant. They tested upstream and downstream of the plant and found more.
The Passaic is actually a tidal tributary of New York Harbor and Newark Bay. When the tides come in, salt water creeps up the river for miles, hugging the riverbed while fresh water continues flowing downstream on the surface. This two-way motion helped spread the dioxin in both directions, taking along with it other pollutants—mercury, PCBs, chromium and more—from different factories along the river.
The result is an environmental nightmare, a scenario more complex than most EPA scientists have ever encountered. To add to the conundrum, the dioxin, which doesn’t dilute in water but sticks to solids, was quickly covered by a thick layer of sediment, which has grown steadily deeper since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stopped dredging the river 30 years ago because of the difficulty of disposing of such contaminated sediment. The most dangerous layer of dioxin today lies about eight feet below the riverbed, buried under tons of muck.
What danger does the dioxin represent down there? Ironbound leaders know of no one remaining in the community who claims to have been made sick by it, not even those who ignore decades of advisories and continue to eat the striped bass, white perch and bluefish they catch in the river, or the plump blue crabs they pluck from its depths and from Newark Bay. The crabs are so loaded with toxins that the state considers eating more than one in 20 years dangerous.
“I’ve seen people a block and a half below the Jackson Street bridge fishing, and when I ask them what they do with the fish, they say they taste good,” Leonard Thomas, an Ironbound resident and member of the Community Advisory Group to the EPA, told officials at a recent meeting. “One guy asked me if the fish had germs, because if that was the problem he wasn’t worried. He said vodka kills germs.”
Of course, the $80 million cost of the Lister Avenue project is a steep price to make the river suitable for fishing. But that’s hardly the whole reason for cleaning it up. Elizabeth Butler, EPA’s remedial project manager on the Diamond Alkali site, says there is a sense of justice involved, a strong conviction—imposed by Congress—that people have a right to clean water, and that the only way to insure that contaminants do no harm is to contain or get rid of them. What’s more, if the pollution is removed, the river’s shipping channel can be dredged again; if shipping returns to the river, vacant riverside lots can again provide jobs; and the waterway can be used for recreation.
“This cleanup is the initial step in getting us to where everybody has been telling us they want to be,” Butler says. “They want to come back to the river, to fish, to canoe, to take home meals without worrying about getting sick.”
The Passaic is one of 144 federal Superfund sites in New Jersey. Being on the list means that much of the cleanup cost will be borne by the businesses that created the problem, or in some cases, the companies that have absorbed them. That is, if authorities can find out who is who. On the Passaic, it has long been clear that much of the dioxin came from the Lister Avenue plant. But figuring out who is going to accept responsibility has taken decades. In the mid-1980s, Diamond Alkali—then known as Diamond Shamrock—sold its chemical division to the Occidental Chemical Corporation and renamed itself Maxus Energy. At around the same time, Maxus created Tierra Solutions, a subsidiary whose sole purpose was to handle the environmental liability connected with the chemical plants formerly owned by Diamond Shamrock. Occidental, Maxus and Tierra all are being sued by the New Jersey DEP, which is trying to recoup some expenses the state incurred because of the Lister Avenue pollution. In a separate action in 2008, Tierra agreed to cover the $80 million tab for removing the worst contamination near Lister Avenue.
“Our position has always been that we have a responsibility for the condition of this river,” says Michael Turner, a spokesman for Tierra Solutions. “That doesn’t mean we have sole responsibility, but we do recognize that we do have a responsibility that we are meeting.”
Allocating responsibility is also a problem. Over the years, hundreds of businesses contributed to the mess. Tierra belongs to a group of about 70 companies fingered by the EPA to pay for the overall cleanup. That group is now studying the 17-mile stretch of the river from the Dundee dam in Garfield to Newark Bay. Their remediation plan is not expected to be completed for several years.
At the same time, the EPA is completing work on a more focused study of the badly polluted lower eight miles of river. Walter Mugdan, who oversees the Superfund program in this region as director of EPA’s Emergency and Remedial Response division, says this stretch of the Passaic will probably have to be dredged in its entirety to get rid of all the pollutants. How far down to go is the question. Two alternatives are on the table. One is to just skim off 2 feet of muck, then cover the contaminated riverbed with clean soil, isolating the pollution from organisms that live in the water. The other option is to dredge all the contaminants—no matter how deep—out of the entire eight miles, which would create up to 11 million cubic yards of waste.
The EPA hopes to present its plan for the lower eight miles later this year. Mugdan says it would then be incorporated into the private companies’ plans for the full 17 miles. While they are cooperating with authorities, those companies feel the responsibility for the cleanup should be spread farther, perhaps including the U.S. Department of Defense, because it had contracted for the production of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
Once the large-scale cleanup gets underway, it will generate a tremendous amount of contaminated sediment. The process being used for the Diamond Alkali project is considered too limited for the larger remediation. Some alternative will have to be found, and that prospect has the Ironbound community up in arms, sometimes fighting even itself.
Seated around a large square of cafeteria tables in the basement of St. James church in the Ironbound, Ana Baptista and other members of the Community Advisory Group face a cohort of federal officials who have come to explain why, 30 years after the pollution in the Passaic was discovered, they need more time to study the river. The frustration on the faces of the group members is unmistakable. “Since the 1980s, the river has been studied every which way,” says Joseph Nardone. “They just study it and study it, but it never really gets cleaned up.”
The federal officials go through a series of slides explaining the complexity of the Passaic and why, despite years of modeling to predict how various cleanup options might affect the river, they still need more time. After about an hour, a member of the community group is given a chance to speak. Ella Filippone is executive director of the Passaic River Coalition, which looks out for the waterway. She and Nardone joke that they’ve been pushing for a river cleanup since both of them had brown hair.
Filippone, with her gray locks now in a bowl cut, urges the other members of the group to consider all options as they move ahead, but it quickly becomes clear that she favors a particular alternative—one that calls for keeping the dredged material in the region and decontaminating it with intense heat and chemicals so it can be repurposed instead of being shipped thousands of miles away. She focuses on a particular process called Cement-Lock, whose backers mounted a pilot project nearby a few years ago. Passaic River sediment was heated to 2,500 degrees in a kiln, hot enough to neutralize contaminants. The sand-like material that was left was mixed with Portland cement and gravel to build 100 feet of sidewalk at Montclair State University.
Filippone wholeheartedly believes this kind of process is the best chance the Passaic has to actually be cleaned up. She insists that the kiln not be considered an incinerator and says it does not need to be located in the Ironbound, but could be anywhere in the region. However Nardone, her old ally, buys none of it. “I may not have a PhD., but I don’t have ‘stupid’ printed across my forehead,” he shouts as everyone turns toward him. The Ironbound already has one huge garbage incinerator, he says, and lately has fought off proposals for a medical-waste incinerator and a pet crematorium. “No matter what you call it, it’s an incinerator, and if it’s going to go anyplace, it will end up being jammed down our throats here, like everything else.”
The people of Ironbound well understand the dilemma facing them. To clean the Passaic, the toxic material has to go someplace. Having been on the receiving end of other people’s garbage, they are loathe to just send their pollution to another community. That partly explains why the contaminated material at Diamond Alkali was entombed on the site rather than shipped away or incinerated. But they also are extremely wary of promises about new technology. Their strategy now seems to be the contradictory one of holding out for a more palatable solution while pressing for the Passaic to be cleaned up as quickly as possible.
Judith Enck, the EPA administrator, recognizes their dilemma but cannot guarantee that an incinerator or some other innovative remediation process, if built, would not be sited somewhere in the greater Newark area. “I can’t rule that out,” she says. With football stadiums of polluted mud to deal with, local remediation is getting another look.
“When we make our decision we will be very mindful of the community’s environmental-justice concerns,” Enck says.
There seems to be no perfect solution, and folks in the Ironbound know that. Such predicaments would dishearten many other neighborhoods. Michael Edelstein, a professor at Ramapo College who has written about contaminated communities, says lengthy fights involved with toxic waste sites can overwhelm the strongest communities. But that hasn’t happened in the Ironbound.
“Ironbound is to be respected and commended for its resilience and resourcefulness, as well as for the important fact that they haven’t allowed this to destroy their community,” Edelstein says. “But at some point, the bottom-line message for Ironbound has to be, ‘Enough is enough is enough.’”
Anthony DePalma is the writer in residence at Seton Hall University and author of City of Dust: Illness, Arrogance and 9/11 (FT Press, 2010).
The Scoop on the Cleanup
The foremost concern in cleaning the toxins out of the Passaic River is not to make matters worse by spreading the contamination as it is being removed. To contain the sediments that are stirred up by the dredging, the contractors have enclosed the target area, at river mile 3.4, in a rectangle of steel retaining walls 750 feet long by about 110 to 135 feet wide. Before the rectangle was closed, several barges loaded with equipment were floated inside.
Once the operation begins, an earth excavator on one of the barges will reach down into the water and begin scooping up river mud. The sediment will go through a series of screens to separate out debris. Then it will be pumped through a double-walled pipe 1,400 feet downriver to a temporary processing plant on land.
At the processing plant, a series of presses will squeeze out the water, which will be treated and returned to the river. The remaining sediment, substantially reduced in volume, will be loaded into large steel containers, sealed, and taken by tractor-trailers 1.5 miles to the Brills rail yard in Newark. There the containers, fully lined to prevent leakage, will be loaded onto rail cars and transported west. The most heavily contaminated material will be sent to an incinerator in Utah. The rest will go to a licensed landfill in Oklahoma.