By David Cruz
The Passaic River has long been a symbol of environmental abuse. Toxins, from PCBs and the byproducts of agent orange to heavy metals like mercury have made the Passaic unswimmable and unfishable.
“The polluted Passaic River is often the brunt of jokes. That stops today,” said EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck.
Today, political leaders and environmentalists gathered on the Newark side of the river to announce the largest environmental cleanup in the history of the EPA.
“This will cost about $1.7 billion and will require 4.3 million yards of highly-contaminated sediment to be removed from the lower eight miles of the Passaic River,” Enck said, “You may wonder what 4.3 million cubic yards look like. It would fill up MetLife Stadium two times. After the dredging, there will be protective capping of the river bottom. And then that sediment will be sent outside of the state to a licensed disposal facility and it’ll be transported by train.”
For activists and political leaders like former Newark mayor, now U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, the announcement represents the culmination of years of work.
“This is literally a core artery going into the body politic of who we are as a community in all our surrounding towns in this area and so for us to be able to make this kind of progress this rapidly, from building this park to cleaning up our waterways, opening up economic opportunities, opening up recreational potential all of this is tremendous,” Booker said.
“We said Newark has an asset that is not being tapped and now it is being tapped and we are thrilled,” said Ironbound Community Corporation Community Outreach Director Nancy Zak.
But the project is not without detractors, including Jonathan Jaffe of the Lower Passaic Cooperating Parties Group, who says the project doesn’t go far enough and will have a negative impact in the short run.
“The EPA is talking about taking maybe 20 years to do this and that’s gonna mean a lot of construction equipment and a lot of work crews in this area and it’s really gonna cut off the lower Passaic from the people,” Jaffee said.
With the price tag of more than a billion dollars to be paid — by law — by the more than 200 companies responsible for polluting the river, there is a fear among many here that litigation could slow the start of the cleanup.
“We need to be reconciling our differences and telling people to get out of our way because we wanna clean up this river,” said Congressman Bill Pascrell.
No project of this size can get done without hearing from a lot of people, both pro and con. The EPA has set up a 60 day comment period beginning with the first of three public hearings scheduled for May 7. Work they hope will begin early next year.