Bayonne is one of eight municipalities and three counties in the watershed of the lower Passaic River and Newark Bay complex that were awarded more than $53 million in grants from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to improve public access and restore wetland ecosystems. Bayonne will receive $900,013 in grant money as part of a $190 million Natural Resource Damage settlement in 2014 reached by the DEP and the NJ Attorney General’s Office with Occidental Chemical Corporation and other parties responsible for discharging pollutants into the Passaic River.
The purpose of Bayonne’s grant is to expand public access to its western shore by creating 1,200 feet of nature walkways. The project will include the creation of living shorelines, which use native vegetation and shellfish to naturally stabilize the banks of waterways. Part of the walkway will consist of an elevated boardwalk that will connect to a kayak access point and boat launch.
The City still has to match the grant dollar-for-dollar and jump through some bureaucratic hoops before securing the grant money, which includes a city council resolution passed in January and various letters of support.
Bayonne Business Administrator Joe DeMarco said the project is still in the planning phase. “We’re looking for private entities and private developers to invest in [the walkway],” he said, adding that the DEP plays a role in determining construction near the water. “We got some money, which is good. We got a concept. Now we have to go and sit down with the DEP to see what we got.”
“We got some money, which is good. We got a concept. Now we have to go and sit down with the DEP to see what we got.” – Joe DeMarco
Jewels on the waterfront
Bill Sheehan, the Hackensack Riverkeeper, is as excited as anyone to see resources dedicated to help clean up waterways. He issued a letter of endorsement for Bayonne, as did the Forestry and Recreation Divisions of the Bayonne Department of Public Works.
“I’m very happy for the towns that pursued those grants and got those grants,” he said.“Hopefully in a relatively short period of time we should start to see activity on waterfronts that have laid dormant for some period of time. In turn that will give people the opportunity to get out there, go kayaking, or just read a book and spend more time by the water.”
Sheehan said the grant is important because it links public parks along the Northern Newark Bay waterfront on Bayonne’s west shore, including Hudson County Park, 16th Street Park, Rukowski Park, and Veterans Stadium. He described the now-disconnected areas as individual “jewels.”
“You have three jewels, how do you wear them? You put a chain between them and wear a necklace,” said Sheehan. “Each one of these jewels will be connected by a pedestrian path and will make for a great deal more recreation. It will give people a real opportunity to get into the outdoors.”
Despite his pleasure with the continued efforts to revitalize natural waterfronts, Sheehan said there’s a negative side – lost opportunity.
“There wasn’t enough money [awarded in grants],” said Sheehan. “The real chunk of money was absconded with by the governor.”
Sheehan believes that communities should have received a larger chunk of the $190 million settlement with Occidental, the legal successor to Diamond Shamrock Chemical Company. The company was found liable in 2011 by a Superior Court Judge for the cleanup costs that resulted from the intentional dumping of hazardous chemical waste from the former Diamond Shamrock plant in Newark, which manufactured Agent Orange and other chemicals.
New Jersey Gov. Christopher Christie vetoed a bill in May of 2015 that would have allocated more money for the cleanup of the mercury and PCB-laden Passaic River from the legal settlements, which amount to more than $355 million since 2005. The rest of the money was deposited into the State General Fund.
“Imagine what towns can do with all that money and how to fix up the waterfronts,”Sheehan said. “So it’s bittersweet.”
Mayor James Davis, for his part, was nothing but optimistic. “The news of this significant grant award marks another step in the right direction in our efforts to rebuild, reconstruct, and improve our local infrastructure,” he said in a statement.“From roads to recreation, my administration has worked tirelessly to secure grant funds so that the necessary improvements and renovations done within our community are funded creatively, and not solely on the backs of our local taxpayers. As a peninsula, and as the southernmost point in the county, access to the Newark Bay waterfront and waterway is a huge asset. The funds secured in this grant will assist us in stabilizing our shoreline and improving the public’s access to the same.”
On Trump’s EPA freeze
President Donald Trump has signed an executive order freezing EPA grants and contracts, many of which include toxic cleanups and water quality testing. The order is temporary, but the gesture does not bode well for environmental causes or the state’s prospects to secure federal grants in the future.
Bayonne’s DEP grant was not a federal grant, but if Trump and the Republican congressional majority have their way, the federal government may cease issuing any earmarked grants, in favor of block grants to be deposited into the state general funds, like the one the governor uses to fill budget holes.
Bill Sheehan puts his faith in the state.
“Whatever harm he [Trump] can get away with doing he’s going to do,” Sheehan said.“This is the first time in a long time that we have a deeply entrenched enemy in the White House. My attitude toward it is New Jersey has its own set of laws, its own DEP, and we have the ability to make New Jersey the greenest state in the union. Given the right governor and given the right direction, I think we can rebuild the NJDEP, which Christie has decimated to get the people in New Jersey the kind of protection they voted for time and time again.”
Rory Pasquariello may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.