The Record: Editorial: Cleaning up the Hackensack

Feb 22, 2017
In the News

The Record: Editorial: Cleaning up the Hackensack

If ever there were a time and place for a robust federal response to pollution in New Jersey, it is just now along the Hackensack River, where recently taken samples reveal a riverbed rife with toxins. Instead of scaling back, as some fear, the Environmental Protection Agency must be more vigilant than ever, particularly as it concerns a potential cleanup and recovery.

Two New Jersey Democratic congressmen, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. and Rep. Josh Gottheimer, correctly argued in a letter to the EPA that the agency must expedite its review and analysis of contaminants in the river to determine whether the Hackensack should be declared a federal Superfund site.

As Staff Writer James M. O’Neill reported, hundreds of recent sediment samples show the riverbed is laced over 22 miles with nasty pollutants. The newest data, which reaffirmed earlier EPA findings, indicate a toxic cocktail that includes elevated levels of cadmium, lead, mercury, cancer-causing dioxin and PCBs, enough for the EPA to conclude that the river’s contaminants cause a potential health threat to humans and wildlife.

“The Hackensack River is in desperate need of attention and plays a key role to our local economy and ecosystem,” Gottheimer and Pascrell wrote to the new head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, who has for years been a foe of the agency and its mission. “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.”

The Superfund program remains a vital tool in helping the nation sustain and protect our natural wonders, and recover our polluted landscapes and waterways. Under a Superfund designation, the EPA determines the extent of pollution and comes up with the best way for cleanup. Often, these cleanup costs are covered by companies shown to have caused the pollution.

This part of the EPA responsibility should not be a partisan or ideological issue. It should be as matter-of-fact as repairing a roadway or completing a bridge. Superfund is more about rehabilitation than regulation.

Still, declaring a major river a Superfund site is no small matter. Parts of both the Hudson River and Passaic River have already attained that status. For the Passaic, for example, the EPA has chosen a dredging and capping plan expected to cost nearly $1.4 billion.

Power in Washington shifts according to election cycles. Yet the relative health of the Hackensack River – and the wildlife and marine life that call it home – should not be caught up in those winds, or any one philosophy. The river’s well-being should be subject only to common sense and science, and to research and analysis that point the best way forward toward renewal.

In the case of polluted sediment in the Hackensack, the EPA must simply do its job, and do it quickly. Whether that includes a decision to name the river a Superfund site, the agency needs to let area residents and public officials know what remediation efforts are needed, and what sort of timeline those efforts might take.

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