After pressure from a local environmentalist, federal authorities have agreed to conduct an assessment of the Hackensack River to determine the extent of pollution and contamination caused by industry over the years. The findings could result in a massive cleanup project, with violators compelled to pay for remediation efforts.
Samples will be taken from a 23-mile stretch of the river, from the Oradell Dam in the north to the mouth of the river in the south, throughout Bergen and Hudson Counties, beginning in 2016. Depending on the results, the river may be placed on the National Priorities List (NPL) of “superfund” sites. That would qualify it for cleanup status by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Secaucus resident Capt. Bill Sheehan and his Hackensack Riverkeeper organization initially petitioned for the river to be designated a superfund site, after several years of meetings with officials from the EPA and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Sheehan submitted the petition in February 2015, and the EPA responded with its detailed findings in September.
The next assessment is just the beginning of a long process with an alphabet-soup of acronyms to contend with along the way. Already the site has undergone a preliminary assessment (PA), which consists of reviewing existing documentation, deeds, articles, and other available materials to determine pre-eligibility.
Based on their review the EPA issued a 122-page report finding “approximately 653 potential facilities and 268 potential […] sites that may be sources of contamination to the Hackensack River.” Elevated concentrations were found of cadmium, lead, mercury, benzo(a)pyrene, dibenzo(a,h)anthracene, PCBs, dioxin, dieldrin and other contaminants in the river sediments.
“Some of the contaminants can be transferred from the bottom of the river to wildlife and then people eat them.” –Capt. Bill Sheehan
“It’s about the mud, it’s not about the water,” explained Sheehan, who founded the Hackensack Riverkeeper organization in the 1990s, advocating for environmental conservation and responsibility. “The water is arguably cleaner than it’s been in the last 50 to 100 years. It’s the mud that’s the problem. Some of the contaminants dumped into the river can be transferred from the bottom of the river to wildlife and then people eat them, which can be dangerous to their health.”
And he’s not just talking about a mild bellyache from tainted fish. “The contaminants bioaccumulate in peoples’ systems until they get to the personal tipping point,” he said. “Then they could get sick with various types of cancer. In young people it could affect their ability to reproduce in various ways, including having mentally impaired children.”
Many more steps to come
The next step is to sample and test the sediment from various locations along the river. There’s no telling how long that will take. “It depends on how extensive the testing is, whether it’s one round or several,” said Rodriguez. “Every superfund site is distinct. For example many sites are former landfills where you have a defined geographic area so that’s pretty straightforward. The Hackensack River is not just one small area.”
Once the samples are collected and tested, the EPA will determine a final score, based upon which the agency will decide if the site is actually eligible to be officially designated a superfund site and added to the NPL.
If approved, a remedial investigation and feasibility study (RI/FS) is conducted to determine the nature and extent of contamination, as well as which technologies are capable of treating the contamination. A record of decision (ROD) is then rendered, outlining steps to be taken, and remedial design/remedial action (RD/RA) is initiated to clean up the site.
Several outreach and community involvement efforts are undertaken along the way, with the public invited to contribute their comments.
Holding polluters responsible
The EPA has divided the U.S. into 10 superfund regions. Region 2 consists of New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.
“New Jersey was one of the first Industrial Revolution states,” said Sheehan. “We got dumped on starting back in the early 1800s with the tanneries along the river. They dumped solutions containing poisons right into the waterways and buried the waste in landfills.”
The federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) established the superfund, in part to determine which companies contributed to environmental pollution, and to hold them responsible for a requisite portion of cleanup initiatives.
“We search for what the EPA calls potentially responsible parties, or PRPs,” said Rodriguez. “Those could be individuals, companies, or groups of companies. Those responsible for contaminations should be responsible for paying for and implementing remediation under EPA oversight.”
“A lot of these companies are gone because they were consumed by bigger corporations and were closed down,” added Sheehan. “But when you buy a company you not only buy assets, you buy liabilities. If company A is bought up by company X, they assume responsibilities. A lot of those companies had insurance, and when they were polluting the river that policy was in effect. They’ll kick and scream, but they’re on the hook.”
A second category is “orphan” sites with no viable responsible party, meaning either they cannot be identified, they no longer exist, or they are incapable of paying. “In that case it’s EPA or essentially the taxpayer who fund the remediation,” said Rodriguez.
The complication here is that the tax that was levied on chemical and gas companies when the program was established was allowed to expire in the 1990s. That tax was intended to create the literal “superfund” as a sort of trust fund to pay for remediations.
“Congress put a tax on the industries whose byproducts are pollution,” said Sheehan. “It was intended to bankroll the EPA. During the Newt Gingrich era, lobbyists from the fossil fuel industry and chemical industry went to congress and basically got the superfund defunded.”
Consequently, “Annual congressional appropriations now fund the superfund,” said Rodriguez. “And the trend is that it’s less every year. That makes it a question of prioritization, and priority goes to sites where cleanup has already begun and a cleanup plan is in place. There are limited resources, and hundreds of thousands of sites could potentially go on the NPL.”
Nonetheless, Sheehan is confident that the Hackensack River will be listed as a superfund site “in the near future” and remediation will begin.
“If the EPA goes at it great guns, it could get it done in 25 to 30 years,” he guessed. Which is a long time, but considerably better than the 150 to 200 years he estimates it would take for the river to cleanse itself of contaminants, even if all discharges into the water were to stop today.
“In my role as riverkeeper, the chances of me being around when all is said and done are relatively slim,” he said. “But if somebody didn’t pull the trigger and get this started, it would never get done.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at email@example.com.