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EPA adds Lower Hackensack River to Superfund list

This is a major step toward remediating contaminated river sediments

EPA Deputy Regional Administrator Walter Mugdan announces the Lower Hackensack River was added to the Superfund National Priorities List on September 7 in Secaucus. Photo of the event livestream via Rep. Josh Gottheimer.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is adding the Lower Hackensack River in Bergen and Hudson counties to the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL), officials have announced.

The river’s inclusion on the list is a major step toward the remediation of river sediments contaminated with pollutants from past industrial practices. In total, twenty municipalities line the Lower Hackensack River including: Secaucus, Jersey City, North Bergen, Kearny, River Edge, Ridgefield Park, Carlstadt, Little Ferry, Oradell, Rutherford, Bogota, Ridgefield, Hackensack, Teaneck, East Rutherford, Moonachie, North Arlington, New Milford, South Hackensack and Lyndhurst.

Officials make the announcement in Secaucus

The event was held on the banks of the Lower Hackensack River at the Boardwalk Promenade at Laurel Hill Park in Secaucus on September 7. Those in attendance included EPA Deputy Regional Administrator Walter Mugdan, Representative Donald Payne, Jr., Representative Josh Gottheimer, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette, and the Hackensack Riverkeeper Captain Bill Sheehan, among others.

Secaucus Town Administrator Gary Jeffas spoke at the event on behalf of Mayor Michael Gonnelli who was not feeling well and did not attend: “We’re very excited here in Secaucus for the cleaning up of the river. As you can see from our parks and our town, it runs completely along the Hackensack. It’s going to be an awesome development to have this waterway back to what it was, hopefully, one hundred years ago.”

Years in the making, the site had been proposed for the list in March of this year. Now, the EPA is adding five sites across the nation to its NPL including the Lower Hackensack River, and proposing to add two others that pose significant risk to people’s health and the environment.

“The inclusion of the Lower Hackensack River on the National Priorities List will unlock the federal tools and resources needed to return this precious waterway to the community,” said Regional Administrator Lisa F. Garcia. “New Jersey’s industrial past helped build this country, but the weight of that legacy has been unequally carried by overburdened and underserved communities. We are committed to restoring this natural resource and working with our state, local and community leaders to get the job done.”

“As the state with the most Superfund sites in the nation, New Jersey has been harmed by legacy pollution and residents have had to endure the harmful effects of toxic air and toxic water,” said Senator Cory Booker. (D-NJ) “With the Lower Hackensack River finally added to the Superfund National Priorities List, our state will receive new tools and resources to clean and restore one of our state’s treasured waterways. I am especially grateful to the advocates, organizations, and government officials who worked tirelessly to make this announcement a reality.”

Industrial activity polluted river over hundreds of years

The Lower Hackensack River site, stretching approximately 18.75 river miles from the Oradell Dam to near the river mouth at Newark Bay, along with its associated wetlands and the surrounding area, has been a center of industrial activities for more than 200 years. As a result, decades of sewage and industrial discharges into the river and its tributaries have contaminated river sediments. Prior studies and investigations show that the river contains sediments contaminated with arsenic, lead, chromium, mercury, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon compounds, and polychlorinated biphenyls.

Four current Superfund sites believed to have contributed significantly to the contamination of Hackensack River sediments are: the Ventron/Velsicol site in Carlstadt and Wood-Ridge, a mercury processing facility that operated from 1929 to 1974; Universal Oil Products, Chemical Division, in East Rutherford, which processed chemicals from 1930 to 1979; Standard Chlorine, in Kearny, which manufactured and processed various chemical products, including mothballs and lead-acid batteries, from around 1916 to 1993; and Scientific Chemical Processing in Carlstadt, which conducted various chemical recovery, processing, and storage activities from around 1941 until 1980.

“The EPA prioritizing the cleanup of our Lower Hackensack River here in North Jersey is terrific news. I have been leading federal efforts to restore the river from its current contaminated state because our communities deserve better,” said Congressman Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ-09) “I have worked closely with the EPA to ensure that the Lower Hackensack’s cleanup process be prioritized. I have also strongly supported the Murphy Administration’s efforts to hold up their end of the bargain in this endeavor. I’m grateful for the work of our partners on the federal, state, and local level to make this progress possible. Together we will restore the Lower Hackensack River to its former glory.”

“It is great to see the Lower Hackensack River added to the EPA’s Superfund National Priorities List,” said Rep. Donald M. Payne, Jr. (D-NJ-10) “A few of my New Jersey House colleagues and I wrote a letter to the EPA in July 2021 to request the agency designate the river as a Superfund priority. This action shows the Biden Administration’s continued commitment to environmental protections and restorations. Now, New Jersey can get the funding and support necessary to clean up the Lower Hackensack River and create an environmental space that all residents can enjoy.”

‘Light at the end of the river’

The Hackensack River is part of the New York–New Jersey Harbor Estuary and is habitat to over 30 designated endangered or threatened species and home to over 8,400 acres of wetlands. It runs through residential, commercial, industrial and public areas. Due to the elevated contamination levels found in fish and crab throughout the Newark Bay Complex, including the tidal Hackensack River, the NJDEP has placed multiple advisories on the river’s recreational and fishing activities.

“The official Superfund designation for the Hackensack River is a critical milestone for the Garden State that will hasten the cleanup and restoration of one of our most precious natural resources,” said Commissioner LaTourette, who requested the federal superfund listing immediately upon his confirmation as New Jersey Commissioner of Environmental Protection last year.

“Governor Phil Murphy, Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver, and our Administration are committed to the swift assessment and cleanup of the Hackensack for all those who live, work and recreate in its watershed. We thank Administrator Regan, Regional Administrator Garcia, Congressmen Pascrell and Gottheimer, and the many EPA, county, local and nonprofit partners who have championed this river and made this moment possible. While we may just be at the beginning, there is abundant light at the end of this river.”

There are thousands of contaminated sites across the country due to past practices of dumping, storing or discharging contamination indiscriminately. President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will accelerate the EPA’s work to help communities clean up these contaminated sites with a $3.5 billion investment in the Superfund Remedial Program and reinstates the Superfund chemical excise taxes, making it one of the largest investments in American history to address legacy pollution.

This historic investment strengthens the EPA’s ability to tackle threats to human health and the environment. The EPA has already set action in motion to clear the backlog of the 49 contaminated sites awaiting funding to start remedial action.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.