- Associated Press - Monday, February 16, 2015

HACKENSACK, N.J. (AP) - The federal government’s decision to consider making the Hackensack River a Superfund site is drawing praise from local mayors and other elected officials - but that praise comes with caveats, including a sense that the Hackensack’s pollution is so pervasive and its hydrology so complex that trying to clean it up might be a fool’s errand.

A century of industrial activity has left the riverbed highly polluted with mercury, cancer-causing PCBs and other toxic chemicals.

After the Hackensack Riverkeeper petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency last week to grant the river Superfund status, the agency agreed to study whether to add the river to the program, reserved for the nation’s most contaminated sites.

“It would be a fantastic thing,” Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli, a former commissioner of the Meadowlands Commission, told The Record (https://bit.ly/1v5Spm7). “If we could clean up the river it would be a major accomplishment.”

The EPA study will be completed within a year. If the agency decides the lower 17 miles of the river - from the Oradell Dam to Newark Bay - should be added to the Superfund program, it would prompt a multiyear investigation to determine the extent of contamination as well as the companies responsible for the pollution. A cleanup would likely involve dredging and capping contaminated sediment, and could cost several billion dollars.



“In our region there are few issues more critical than revitalizing our rivers for all communities to enjoy,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. “I think it’s important to investigate any and all remedies to restore a vital natural resource like the Hackensack River.”

The Superfund program provides the EPA power to identify polluters and force them to pay for the cleanup, so taxpayers don’t foot the bill. The EPA would cover the initial costs, which could be reimbursed by the polluting entities.

Money for cleanup would be the biggest advantage, Gonnelli said. “Who else could possibly fund a cleanup of that magnitude?” he said. “No municipality could possibly undertake it.”

State Sen. Paul Sarlo, the mayor of Wood-Ridge, agreed. “Superfund designation clears the way for significant federal money to pay for cleanup,” he said. “And then hopefully people can use the river again.”

Gonnelli said the public is already rediscovering the river for kayaking, canoeing and fishing, though the state has a ban on eating fish and crabs caught in the river because mercury in the tissue can affect human health.

“The river is becoming a destination,” Gonnelli said. Mill Creek Marsh, an offshoot of the Hackensack, “is the only place where you can kayak in peace and still look at the Empire State Building.” Secaucus is finishing the first phase of a “greenway” from Mill Creek south along the Hackensack to Harmon Cove to improve riverfront access.

The Hackensack and its tributaries form the Meadowlands, a vital ecosystem for migrating birds as well as species that breed and live there. “A cleanup would not only be important for birds - it would be important for people,” said Don Torino, president of the Bergen County Audubon Society. “It’s about time - it’s the final piece in the puzzle. That contamination has been sitting there for so many years.”

James Cassella, the mayor of East Rutherford, said a cleaned up portion of the Universal Oil Superfund site just east of Route 17, redeveloped with a Lowe’s, restaurants and other stores, shows what can happen when the Superfund program works. “It’s helped the area both economically and aesthetically,” he said.

But, given the challenges posed by the Hackensack itself - the amount of contamination, the tidal nature of the river and the number of sources of contamination that still exist, Cassella wonders whether the river could ever really be cleaned up.

“The sins of our past certainly have put us in a position where it’s very difficult to achieve our goals,” he said.

Edward Lloyd, an environmental law expert at Columbia University School of Law, noted that Superfund “can be used very effectively - but it will require a strong will on the part of the federal and state agencies to make it happen.

“There are Superfund successes and Superfund failures,” he said. “It’s not always a silver bullet.”

The nature of the river itself could propose a problem. Because the Hackensack is tidal, the pollution gets spread over a wide area. “You have to look at the river as a whole and manage it that way,” said Meiyin Wu, director of the Passaic River Institute at Montclair State University.

During the year of the study, the EPA will likely send out a questionnaire to companies along the Hackensack asking them to identify the pollutants they generate and how they dispose of them, as a first step to determine which should be considered potential responsible parties for a cleanup, said Steven R. Gray, an environmental law expert at Secaucus-based Waters, McPherson and McNeill.

Then, if the EPA adds the river to the Superfund program, it will invite the companies and other entities, including municipalities, that it considers potentially responsible for the contamination to create a group of cooperating parties to finance future studies on the degree of contamination and, ultimately, the cleanup itself.

“Given the size of the Hackensack, there will have to be more than 100 parties,” Gray said.

Some companies may decide to fight the EPA’s contention that they are responsible, Gray said. But in that case, the EPA can sue those companies and seek financial damages of three times the cost of their share of the cleanup.

“Basically you’re rolling the dice that you’d win in court,” Gray said.

___

Information from: The Record (Woodland Park, N.J.), https://www.northjersey.com

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