Ilya Marritz covers business for WNYC.
The Passaic River in New Jersey isn’t one of those waterways with its source in a pristine mountain lake.
From its spring in Morris County to its mouth at Newark Bay, the Passaic’s shores are lined by suburban subdivisions, factories and depots.
The lower part of the Passaic is a federal Superfund site: during the Vietnam War, Agent Orange was manufactured on the Newark Waterfront.
When Sandy struck, the Passaic spilled its banks, sweeping into residential streets and mixing with waste from backed-up sewers. Dozens of houses were flooded.
“It’s stuff that’s washing into these people’s homes. And we don’t have a clue what that mix looks like,” said Ana Baptista, director of environmental programs at the non-profit Ironbound Community Corporation.
Baptista said the government has done a poor job informing people with flooded basements about the potential health risks.
“The only advisories that I saw were the advisories from the city condemning the properties because of flood and structural damage to their properties,” Baptista said. “No one came out and told them, be careful with the flood water because it could be contaminated.”
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection hasn’t directly addressed what’s in the water that has flooded homes. When asked about the flooding, the Department told WNYC concerned homeowners should seek testing, but that local authorities were responsible for assessing the risks.
On November 2, four days after Sandy, the DEP ordered industrial businesses to hold their waste water in tanks, instead of letting it flow into sewers.
(Photo: Newark residents emptied the contents of their flooded basements onto the sidewalk. Courtesy of the Ironbound Community Corporation)
Elias Rodriguez, an Environmental Protection Agency spokesman, said in an email there is no immediate hazard connected with the superfund site, but that “the EPA is continuing to assess impacts from the storm throughout the area and we will reach out to the community to get more information about potential impacts to the community.”
But there may be a long-term health risk, according to Ryan Miller, a research engineer at Rutgers University who has spent two years studying the lower Passaic. Miller said if toxic sediment from the Passaic was churned up by the storm, it’s possible toxins like PCBs ended up in basements.
“Soil particles or sediment particles at the bottom of the river act as colloids, they’re kind of like the car, and the contamination is kind of like the passenger, they bring it along for the ride,” said Miller.
Once inside someone’s basement, dioxins and PCBs can turn into gases, and start to poison the air. Toxicologists say this kind of exposure is dangerous only over a prolonged period of time.
And Miller said the risk that this has happened is probably low. Storm surges from the sea, like the one Sandy caused, tend to destabilize river sediment far less than heavy rains.
Last year, Hurricane Irene’s rains flooded the Passaic, exposing a seam of dioxin- and PCB-tainted sediment in the river at Lyndhurst. The EPA did testing and decided to decontaminate a section of river, but not an adjacent little league ball field.
With more mega-storms predicted for the years ahead, the Passaic will almost certainly flood again. Environmentalists hope the next time, the government will quickly tell citizens what it knows about what’s in the water.