Getting to the bottom Meadowlands Commission releases first Hackensack River contaminant study in 16 years

A New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC) study released at an April 25 meeting revealed that while many dangerous chemical contaminants are less present along the floor of the Hackensack River than they used to be, one toxic contaminant – mercury – maintains a stubborn presence in the area.

The study, conducted by NJMC staff and Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute (MERI) scientists with statistical help from the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), was based on the traces of metals found in surface mud gathered at 26 locations throughout the Hackensack River watershed. The study closely followed the methods used during a previous 1987 NJMC-sponsored study.

What was found

The mud samples were tested by the MERI scientists for the same metals as in the 1987 study: cadmium, copper, chromium, lead, nickel, and zinc. But unlike the earlier study, the scientists also tested for concentrations of mercury and arsenic in the sediments.

According to MERI director Dr. Francisco Artigas, the near present turned out to be a lot better than the past according to study results.

“There was a four-fold reduction of cadmium through the 26 sample sites since 1987,” he said. “It terms of chromium, there was also a four-fold reduction in the surface sediments, while with lead it was two-fold. Copper had a twelve-fold reduction. These are very positive results.”

Dr. Artigas noted that while the results came from 2003 samples, they were still considered valid, owing to built-in testing delays and the need for precise data analysis.

“This study is absolutely relevant,” he said. “These things work very slowly.”

However, after presenting his results at the Apr. 25 meeting, Dr. Artigas also pointed out the most notable metal still at unacceptable levels.

“Mercury is the problem of our time. It’s first on the list,” he said.

The statement was backed up by study statistics that demonstrate that mercury levels remain at a level that according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could cause adverse biological effects. Fishing for food consumption is not allowed in the Hackensack River.

“We have a legacy of mercury contamination in the Meadowlands district,” he said. “There is a Superfund site at Berry’s Creek (a Bergen County tributary of the Hackensack River) where close to 270 tons of mercury were dumped into the water in previous decades.”

While Dr. Artigas noted that areas such as Superfund sites can be a lingering problem, factors such as dilution, erosion and burial reduce the risk factors to the environment.

Pointedly, he noted that those looking for mercury contamination along the Hackensack should look up rather than to the water for the source.

“The majority of the inputs of mercury into the environment are from aerial depositions,” he said. “Forty percent of this comes from coal-burning power plants. That’s why even pristine lakes up in Canada have mercury problems. That’s also why we banned fishing and consumption of fish and crabs caught in the Hackensack River. This is a reflection on our industrial society. We need to look at this and see how we can reduce these emissions and move forward. We need to take action in reducing the sources.”

Setting study results on the road to practical policy

According to NJMC figures, the cost of the three-year estuary study, which included a two-year survey of the fish population and analysis of contamination in the fish as well as sediment contamination studies, came in at $352,400.

For his part, Dr. Artigas wants the periodic studies to continue not only for the Meadowlands region, but also for the environment at large.

“Everybody’s looking at us,” he said. “We are the quintessential post-industrial estuary. We did this type of study before anybody else. Many developing countries are getting into this mess, while we are coming out of it and are developing techniques to remediate this. Right now, countries like India and China are as we were in 1910: oblivious.”

In this light, NJMC executive director Robert Ceberio noted that he hopes that his agency would continue the studies on a more frequent basis.

“We probably will continue to monitor this issue every three to five years,” he said. “We also plan to do site-specific work where we think is necessary.”

While Ceberio noted the progress that companies such as Honeywell have made in helping to address chromium contamination created by their production in Hudson County municipalities such as Jersey City and Kearny, Ceberio pointed to mercury as “still being an issue for us.” He pointed to the Superfund site where the Ventron/Velsicol mercury processing plant once stood on the border of Carlstadt and Wood-Ridge on Berry’s Creek. The plant was in operation from 1929 to 1974.

Ceberio dated himself when he noted the dissatisfaction that he has experienced at times when trying to put safer environmental policies into practice.

“When I worked in the New Jersey state legislature in 1975, it was discovered that Ventron/Velsicol had probably the largest mercury dump anywhere in the United States,” he said. “For the last 20 years, it has been in litigation as to who else is responsible for mercury pollution in the Berry’s Creek basin. It still to this day has not been addressed.”

Ceberio noted his exasperation about the issue of ongoing mercury contamination, but intended to persevere.

“The one thing that continually hangs around our neck is the mercury issue,” he said. “The ways that these companies use legal maneuvering in order to not address a significant environmental problem, that’s frustrating. We don’t want to wait 20 years again.”

Mark J. Bonamo can be reached at


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