Environmental cleanup experts gathered at NJIT this week for an all-day public forum on a $1.7 billion proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to dredge toxic sediment from an eight-mile stretch of the lower Passaic River.
The EPA has called the plan, which proposes removing 4.3 million cubic yards of contaminated sediments and capping sections of the riverbed, one of the largest cleanups in the agency's history. The toxic material would be dredged and disposed off-site.
"We need to ensure the future well-being of humans and other organisms. NJIT is committed to being part of the solution," said Fadi Deek, the university's provost, in opening remarks. A nine-member panel of experts and environmental advocates then took questions from the audience about the proposals for sediment disposal and further dredging for navigation.
"It's important for members of the affected community to look at the proposal carefully, because there are technical aspects of the plan that lay audiences might not fully appreciate," said Jay Meegoda, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and waste disposal expert, who organized the conference. The invited panelist included representatives from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Passaic River Coalition, among others.
Meegoda, who sits on the EPA's Passaic River Citizen Advisory Committee and also took part in the panel discussion, noted that the EPA held three prior public meetings on the plan, but said that none were "technical forums."
"EPA's proposal for off-site disposal would cost $700 million more than if the sediment were deposited in what are called Confined Aquatic Disposal (CAD) cells in Newark Bay itself. Environmental groups are opposed to CAD cells, but they are not all aware that under the off-site disposal plan, the dredged material would be processed in a large facility within the affected communities to remove water and to solidify sediments for rail transport," Meegoda said.
The sediment in the Passaic is contaminated with dioxin, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals, pesticides and other industrial pollutants deposited by manufacturers along the river over the past century. The EPA notes that a major source of dioxin in the river is pollution from the Diamond Alkali facility in Newark, which produced Agent Orange and pesticides during the 1960s.
"The contamination is far above the EPA's accepted levels and poses a significant risk to people who eat fish from the river and to the wildlife itself," said Alice Yeh, a remedial project manager for the EPA.
The EPA announced its proposal in April after seven years of study. It was developed in consultation with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and with outreach to representatives of the communities along the river. The EPA is still accepting public comment until August 20, 2014.