Could Trump Administration Undo Toxic Passaic River Fix?

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Signs on the Passaic River in Newark say eating fish or crabs there
 can cause cancer (photo by Nancy Solomon)

The Trump Administration is expected to bring radical change to the Environmental Protection Agency, and New Jersey is more vulnerable than many states. It has 105 Superfund sites — the largest number in the country.

One of those toxic cleanup projects is the lower 17 miles of the Passaic River, which runs from Garfield to Newark. In the 1950s and 60s, the herbicide Agent Orange was made by the Diamond Alkali company along the river's banks in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood. The river is now contaminated with dioxin, one of the most deadly chemicals known to man.

The Passaic River was declared a Superfund site in 1984, and after three decades of wrangling, the EPA is holding the companies responsible for polluting the river to pay for its cleanup, and it’s going to cost billions.

“These industries know that very very well, and they’ve mounted a very forceful opposition to doing a straight-forward cleanup,” says Ana Baptista, who grew up three blocks from the Passaic. Her mother brought her along to protests over environmental problems in the neighborhood, and she’s been fighting ever since.

Three companies are responsible for the dioxin in the river, and another 65 or so are being held liable for dumping other pollutants, including PCBs and lead paint. They include huge corporations like Benjamin Moore, General Electric, Honeywell, Monsanto and Occidental Chemical, along with many smaller companies. The EPA files contain thousands of letters from lawyers representing the companies involved, as they tried to deny their involvement, or propose cheaper solutions, according to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

During this same period,  the companies waged a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign. They offered to fund parks in the towns along the river to gain endorsements of a cheaper solution. They created a program that offers free fresh fish in exchange for anything caught in the Passaic River. The companies also complained to Republican members of Congress, who then held hearings on whether the Superfund program was unfairly targeting the companies.

“So you start to see that that there's something else going on, right?” Baptista said. “That there's another effort afoot that is not just ‘lets see what the best solution is.’”

The companies proposed alternatives such as growing plants in the river bed that would transform the dioxin into something else. But Baptista says they couldn’t produce actual research to show any of their plans would work.

But this past March, after years of community meetings, negotiations with the companies and research, the EPA issued what it calls a record of decision, a binding document that specifies which remedy the companies will be required to use to clean up the Passaic.

“I think it’s safe to say they were very unhappy with the decisions we rendered,” says Walter Mugdon, the EPA’s director of superfund sites in New York and New Jersey.

The agency is requiring the companies to remove 4 million cubic yards of toxic mud at the bottom of the river from bank to bank.

“This is actually one of the big disagreements we had with the responsible parties,” Mugdon said. “They felt it would be satisfactory to just select some areas that they might characterize as hot spots, dig those out or cover them over, and then wait five or ten years and see how it works.”

Following the record of decision, two of the three companies responsible for the dioxin contamination declared bankruptcy. The third, Occidental Chemical Corporation, has pledged to pay $165 million dollars for the first phase, a design for the cleanup. The total cost to dredge the river is north of $1 billion. The company says it will pay its share, and go after the other businesses for some of the cost.

But now soon-to-be President Trump enters the picture.

During several campaign debates, Trump promised to make the federal government more friendly to business by loosening restrictions and regulations, and that he’d cut funding to the EPA.

“We’re going to get rid of it in almost every form, we’re gonna have little tidbits left but we’re going to take a tremendous out,” Trump said.

He showed that wasn’t an empty promise when he nominated Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to run the EPA. Pruitt allowed lobbyists from the oil and gas industry to write his own letters of complaint about clean power regulations. He says the agency conspires with environmentalists and treats businesses unfairly, and he has sued the EPA twice.

Pruitt’s transition spokesman says it’s premature to specify how he might handle Superfund sites like the Passaic. Instead, the spokesman points to a written Trump statement released when Pruitt’s nomination was announced.

“The American people are tired of seeing billions of dollars drained from our economy due to unnecessary EPA regulations, and I intend to run this agency in a way that fosters both responsible protection of the environment and freedom for American businesses,” Trump said.

That worries the activists and community members who have worked on the Passaic River cleanup.

“I do think they’re going to be knocking back on the door of the EPA,” said Debbie Mans,  executive director of NY/NJ Baykeeper. “And saying ‘Let’s peel this back, we have an alternative remedy, we think we’ll achieve the same thing.’ And then we’ll be back where we started.”

That was a long time ago — and that could be to the activists’ advantage. The EPA’s Walter Mugdon has survived the pendulum swing of seven different presidents. The record of decision requires a complicated dredging of the toxic mud at the bottom of the river from bank to bank for at least seven of the lower 17 miles. Mugdon believes that decision will hold.  Because even if the Trump Administration wants to let the corporations off the hook, the process to undo a record of decision is as lengthy and rigorous as the one to make it. And when it comes to the Passaic River cleanup, that’s a lot longer than eight years.