June 18, 2014

Article originally written by Heather Haddon of The Wall Street Journal on June 18, 2014.

A decadeslong fight over cleaning up one of the nation's most contaminated riverbeds has posed a difficult question: how to safely remove enough toxic material from New Jersey's Passaic River to fill two MetLife Stadiums.

The federal government is moving forward with long-stalled efforts to rid the Passaic of cancer-causing toxins lodged deep in the riverbed. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed dredging 4.3 million cubic yards of sediment and transporting it out of New Jersey for incineration and disposal, at an estimated cost of $1.7 billion.

Now, scientists backed by two of the companies liable for the cleanup want to take the effort in a different direction, with a plan to test whether a form of bacteria could be deployed to neutralize some of the pollution. The group of bacteria, called Dehalococcoides, suck up the hydrogen gas in some carcinogenic chemicals and then leave behind less harmful material, advocates said.

At a cost of several million dollars, the bacteria would be cultivated under appropriate conditions for about 18 months in the river's most polluted stretches, near Newark, and reviewed by two New Jersey universities, said John Pardue, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Louisiana State University and the proposal's lead scientist.

If the experiment showed success, the technique could be tried on other waterways as a cheaper and less environmentally taxing alternative to dredging, Mr. Pardue said. Dredging is costly and not all environmentalists support it, as it takes resources to transport the material and fills up landfills. "At this scale, developing game-changing technologies would be huge," said Mr. Pardue.

Maxus Energy Corp. and Tierra Solutions Inc.—two energy companies responsible for the cleanup—will submit a formal plan to EPA by the end of June, officials said.

"It's our money and our risk," said Michael Turner, a New Jersey representative for Maxus and Tierra. "If it adds to the body of knowledge and ultimate solution, what's not to like?"

An EPA spokesman said the proposal will be considered when it is submitted.

Efforts to clean up the Passaic have a complicated history. Some environmental groups and residents are skeptical of the bacteria plan. "The No. 1 fear is that alternative proposals are being made on the basis of cost, not the basis of cleanup," said Joseph Della Fave, executive director of the Ironbound Community Corp., a Newark nonprofit.

The Passaic runs for roughly 80 miles through northern New Jersey, beginning in suburban Morris County before progressing to more urban areas on its journey to the Hackensack River and Newark Bay.

It was one of the first industrialized rivers in the country, and it is coated with dioxins, PCBs and other harmful chemicals. The contamination stretches 17 miles in Bergen and Essex counties—from Dundee Dam near Garfield, N.J., to the Newark Bay—but the worst 8-mile section is concentrated in Newark and Harrison.

In 1984, the EPA identified the former Diamond Alkali Co. plant along the river in Newark as a Superfund site after it long produced Agent Orange and other hazardous chemicals.

Superfund cleanups tend to be complex, and the Passaic River's is expected to involve one of the largest ever removals of contaminated sediment. To complicate matters, more than 100 different entities have inherited the responsibility of paying for the river remediation, and they have fought bitterly against it and among themselves.

"It's made the whole process more contentious and more difficult to resolve," said former Gov. Jim Florio, a Democrat who was the prime sponsor of the Superfund legislation when he served in Congress.

In April, the EPA released its long-anticipated plan to clean up the most contaminated 8 miles of the river by dredging up more than 4 million cubic yards of sediment. The riverbed would be capped, and the sediment would be transported by rail to be burned or held.

The state, New Jersey federal representatives and many community groups back the plan. It's now in a comment period through August. Once finalized, federal authorities would negotiate with the responsible parties to pay for it.

The EPA hopes to have a final plan by next year.

Maxus and Tierra have begun to remove tens of thousands of cubic yards of the most contaminated sediment, but in recent weeks began advancing the bacteria proposal.

Strains of the bacteria have shown remarkable success in removing certain toxic chemicals in soil and groundwater contaminations in other Superfund sites, but not in a riverbed on a wide scale, said Ruth Richardson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University.

A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D, N.J.) said he wasn't aware of the bacteria proposal but stood behind the EPA's plan. U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, (D, N.J.) said he was open to testing the bacteria.

Deborah Mans, executive director of NY/NJ Baykeeper, a conservation nonprofit, said she had seen far-flung proposals pushed by those on the hook for the river's cleanup over the years, but supports researching alternatives to dredging.

"It is heartbreaking that the best thing they can do is scoop out the material and remove it," she said.

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