Working for a Cleaner Passaic River

Photo: Mike Peters

With Kirk Barrett, director of the Passaic River Institute at the podium, panel members (left to right), Congressman Bill Pascrell, Alan J. Steinberg, Regional Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Tom Cozzi, Site Remediation Manager for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and Aniello L. Tortora, the New York District Commander for the US Army Corps of Engineers respond to a question from the audience.

On October 16, 2008, the College of Science and Mathematics’ Passaic River Institute hosted its third biennial Passaic River Symposium. As in past years, the symposium brought together scientists, civil servants, lawmakers, and activists to discuss the future of the Passaic River and its tributaries.

Kirk Barrett, director of the Passaic River Institute, characterizes the symposium as “the best opportunity for those who are concerned about, or working on, issues concerning the Passaic River to meet, share information, and discuss those issues.”

The discussions were dominated by the June 2008 announcement that after years of study and delay, a massive dredging and remediation project will remove 200,000 cubic yards of sediments contaminated with heavy metals, dioxins, sewage, and a mix of other chemical pollutants, from the river near the city of Newark. Over seventy companies have been identified as responsible parties that will have to pay a portion of the estimated $80 million cost.

In previous symposia, discussions focused more on the science behind the cleanup, potential benefits, and areas of responsibility but discussions of the costs and who should pay them were more abstract. In 2008, however, with dredging set to begin within a few months, the costs of the project were clearly in the forefront.

A panel—consisting of Congressman Bill Pascrell, Alan J. Steinberg, regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Tom Cozzi, site remediation manager for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and Colonel Aniello L. Tortora, the New York district commander for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—gave each of these leaders the opportunity to discuss the cleanup issues from a variety of viewpoints. All of the panelists agreed that the responsible polluters should pay for the project but there were a number of details still open to debate.

Although the EPA has come under criticism for not pursuing polluters more aggressively, it was clear from the panel discussions that avoiding litigation was a strategy with which many parties agreed. Congressman Pascrell stated that it is through “cooperation, rather than litigation, that we will restore the Passaic River in a faster, fairer, and more effective way.” EPA Administrator Steinberg told the 300 attendees that, “my goal is not punitive; my goal is to clean up the river.”

A speaker at all three of the symposia, Lisa Jackson, then the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection who has since joined the Obama administration as the U.S. EPA administrator, once again repeated her commitment to seeing that the cleanup project moves forward.

Later, during the small group sessions, the session led by Jackson focused on policy issues surrounding the cleanup effort—such as the role of federal funding, plans for habitat restoration once the project is done, and the current state of commercial navigation.

Other sessions included dealing with issues related to the upper watershed—such as nutrient pollution, flooding, and drinking water supply—and a session devoted to the future of waterfront development in Newark.

The afternoon sessions were primarily devoted to scientific topics. Michael Kruge, professor of earth and environmental studies at Montclair State, presented the results of his research into the lower river contaminants and attempts to trace them back to their original sources. Susan Marie Terra, a biology graduate student at Montclair State, discussed her research into invasive plants along the upper Passaic.

While preparing for the next Passaic River Symposium scheduled for 2010, the Passaic River Institute will continue its research and educational mission. Among its ongoing research projects is one measuring the contribution of erosion to sedimentation rates. The Institute’s educational programs include a public outreach on water pollution prevention.

Kevin Olsen ’92 MA is the instrumentation specialist on the support staff of Montclair State University’s Chemistry and Biochemistry Department and a member of the Passaic River Institute. His recent book, A Great Conveniency: a Maritime History of the Passaic River, Hackensack River, and Newark Bay, was published by American History Imprints, and he is a regular contributor to news and historical publications.