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Sunday, July 21, 2024 | Back issues
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Open-Records Spat in NJ Superfund Cleanup

NEWARK, N.J. (CN) - The Environmental Protection Agency is trying to push through one of the biggest Superfund cleanups in history without explaining why it rejected a proposal by corporate interests, an industry group says in a federal complaint.

Added to the EPA's Superfund list in 1984, the Diamond Alkali consists of a former pesticides-manufacturing plant and surrounding properties at 80 and 120 Lister Ave. in Newark, N.J., along the lower Passaic River and Newark Bay.

Deadly Agent Orange was among pesticides that Diamond Alkali produced at the site during the 1950s and 1960s.

Last year, the EPA proposed a bank-to-bank cleanup of a 17-mile stretch of the river that it estimates will cost $1.7 billion.

The project involves removing 4.3 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the affected lower Passaic River and then capping the river bottom.

Five dozen companies that make up the Lower Passaic River Study Area Cooperating Parties Group, or CPG, are among those that have objected to the plan. They filed suit on Oct. 30 under the Freedom of Information Act.

Pursuant to two settlements, the group notes that it has spent the last eight years and more than $130 million on "a feasibility study to determine a cost-effective and adequate remedy" for the Diamond Alkali site.

Having apparently "ignored much of this data, however," the EPA's cleanup proposal is "technically questionable [and] costly," the group says.

The EPA's plan "is expected to disrupt the regional economy and community due to, for example, bridge openings, barge-movement restrictions, and vehicular and rail traffic delays," according to CPG's complaint.

Though CPG says it timely filed comments to the EPA's plan, it had to do so without the benefit of various internal records that the EPA has not seen fit to divulge.

The EPA "erroneously and unlawfully claimed certain documents were privileged and exempted from disclosure," the lawsuit states. "EPA's conduct is arbitrary and capricious and amounts of a flat denial of the CPG's [requests]."

Local environmental groups like the NY/NJ Baykeeper support the EPA's plan, saying it will reduce toxicity in the river and the risk to humans. The state's local Sierra Club chapter also praised the EPA proposal.

CPG member companies opposed to the plan include Hess, Lucent Technologies and Pfizer.

The group says it sent four Freedom of Information Act requests to the agency, seeking additional technical documentation and analyses on its proposal, as well as internal EPA emails and communications. It also sought an accounting of funds spent or earmarked for spending related to the proposed cleanup.

In response to each of the FOIA requests, EPA refused to provide fulsome responses and improperly withheld agency records, CPG alleges.

Occidental Chemical Corp., Maxus Energy Corp., and Tierra Solutions took over the Diamond Alkali plants and are the leading polluters of the river today, CPG spokesman Jonathan Jaffe said. This trio has "unnecessarily delayed any meaningful action on the river for decades," Jaffe added.

Maxus and Tierra were part of a $165 million settlement in 2013 to help clean up the river.

CPG's website calls for "a holistic solution" to the Passaic River's contamination, which it describes as "a multi-faceted problem" that has been compounded by continued runoff from overflows at a sewage plant.

Saying it supports "targeted dredging" of the most contaminated areas, CPG notes that it would take 15 years to dredge the entire river and that "dredging is a messy business."

From 2012 to 2014, CPG itself dredged and capped some 16,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment.

A spokeswoman for the EPA said the agency does not comment on active litigation.

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