Congressmen urge swift decision on Hackensack River

Feb 21, 2017
In the News

Bill Pascrell and Josh Gottheimer called on the EPA to decide soon if the river should be added to the Superfund program.

The Record: Congressmen urge swift decision on Hackensack River

Two North Jersey congressmen sent a letter to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday, urging that the agency move swiftly to determine if the contaminated Hackensack River should be added to the Superfund program.

The Record reported recently that hundreds of sediment samples taken from the Hackensack indicate that the riverbed is laced for 22 miles with a toxic cocktail made up of dozens of contaminants, from its mouth in Newark Bay up to the Oradell Reservoir.

The sediment samples, taken from the river last summer, were the most recent step in the EPA’s effort to determine whether the lower Hackensack should be added to the Superfund program, which is designed to clean up the nation’s most contaminated sites.

The samples affirmed earlier EPA research that found elevated levels of cadmium, lead, mercury, cancer-causing dioxin and PCBs, enough for the EPA to conclude the river’s contaminants cause a potential health threat to humans and wildlife.

The EPA and the state Department of Environmental Protection are still analyzing the sediment data and have not come to any conclusions about it.

In their letter, Rep. Josh Gottheimer of Wyckoff and Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. of Paterson, both Democrats, noted the high contamination levels and urged swift EPA action, though any decision could be influenced by the national political climate. During the election campaign, President Donald Trump promised to dismantle or seriously scale back the EPA, and Scott Pruitt, the new EPA administrator, is expected to cut staff.

It’s not clear what that would mean for the Superfund program, since cleanup costs are often covered by the companies shown to have caused the pollution.

“The Hackensack River is in desperate need of attention and plays a key role to our local economy and ecosystem,” Gottheimer and Pascrell wrote. “That is why we remain deeply concerned about the potential impact of the EPA’s federal hiring freeze on environmental projects like the Hackensack River that are in urgent need of attention.

“We urge the EPA to dedicate resources to expedite the review of the river and determine the best plan to protect the health and safety of our constituents and recover this important river,” they wrote.

EPA spokeswoman Mary Mears said the agency is still “in the process of considering the river for inclusion” in the Superfund program. “We will review the letter and will respond directly to the congressmen,” she said.

Pruitt, the new EPA head, had sued the agency multiple times as Oklahoma’s attorney general, arguing that the EPA overreached its authority during the Obama administration by issuing various regulations designed to cut pollution.

Pruitt met with agency employees for the first time on Monday and said the EPA can be both pro-energy and jobs and pro-environment.

Several experts on river pollution who have seen the Hackensack data agree that the sediment samples show a widespread array of contamination that could pose a hazard. Research has already shown the Hackensack pollution has caused severe abnormalities in aquatic life in the river.

In some core samples, as many as 20 or more contaminants — both heavy metals and organic compounds — were detected. Mercury was detected in elevated levels throughout the riverbed, including some particularly high readings.

Though the Hackensack’s water quality is improving and more people use it to kayak, the bulk of pollution remains in the sediment. Swimming is prohibited, and the state warns against eating fish or crabs caught in the river because mercury can build up in the fish and affect the nervous systems of people who eat them.

The lower Hackensack and its tributaries form the Meadowlands, a key spawning area for fish that provides vital habitat for stressed species of birds, fish and turtles and is an important stopover point for migrating birds along the Atlantic Flyway.

Parts of two other rivers in North Jersey, the Hudson and the Passaic, already have Superfund status. If the EPA were to add the Hackensack, the agency would conduct more studies to determine the extent of pollution and how best to clean it.

Cleanup could include dredging the most polluted sediment and capping less contaminated areas, similar to a nearly $1.4 billion cleanup plan the EPA has chosen for the lower Passaic.

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