New Jersey; Jan. 27, 2005 – Environmentalists fighting to clean up Newark Bay in New Jersey say evidence of contamination from the old Diamond Alkali Chemical plant, notorious for its Vietnam-era production of Agent Orange, can be found by consulting those most familiar with the Bayâ€™s bottom: its crabs.
Numerous tests conducted throughout the years confirm that the bottom dwellers still contain the highest levels of dioxins ever recorded in aquatic animals -- high enough, scientists say, to guarantee a bout of cancer if regularly consumed by humans.
Out of concern for residents affected by the Bayâ€™s ecology, many of them low-income minorities who rely on sustenance fishing from Newark Bay, a coalition of environmental groups has come together to fight the expansion of a dredging project that threatens to re-release many of the contaminants that have long settled beneath newer layers of sediment.
The Port Authority of New Jersey/New York is currently funding a $1.6 billion US Army Corps of Engineers project to deepen Newark Bay and its surrounding channels to a depth of 50 feet.
"A lot of the toxins are sitting on the bottom of Newark Bay in sludge," said Reverend Fletcher Harper, executive director for GreenFaith, an interfaith environmental advocacy group. "The way the Army Corps plans to do the dredging is going to stir up a lot of that currently buried material and make it much more available for intake by all forms of marine life. Itâ€™s going to have the same effect as injecting a whole new round of poison into the marine environment, which will then get passed on to human populations."
The dredging project threatens to re-release many of the contaminants that have long settled beneath newer layers of sediment.
Port Authority officials argue deeper channels are needed to accommodate bigger ships. In order to keep the area a world-class port destination, the argument goes, the Port Authority has to keep up with the needs of big shipping.
In response, GreenFaith, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the New Jersey/New York Baykeeper, has announced their intent to sue the Port Authority and Army Corps for violating the federal Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Port Authority and Army Corps have 90 days from the January 4 notice date to respond.
"We like when federal agencies follow their own rules," said New Jersey/New York Baykeeper Andrew Willner. "The Corps has issued a permit and contract for a project that is a navigational dredging project on a Superfund site." And that, says Willner, means the Army Corps is required to conduct what is known as a supplemental impact study before going through with its plans.
"We donâ€™t like doing litigation," he said. "Itâ€™s time consuming and expensive. We want to make every effort to get this resolved before going to the courts. Iâ€™m angry at these bureaucrats for not understanding that they have the publicâ€™s interest in hand."
The environmentalists say they donâ€™t have a problem with deepening the port per se. Their concerns arise over the methods and location of dredging required. They want to ensure that the Corpâ€™s contractors use the best dredging equipment, and take every precaution to prevent dredged sediments from being reintroduced into the water.
Newark Bay was included in the Diamond Alkali Superfund study last February after a similar group of environmentalists threatened to sue Occidental Chemical, the present-day incarnation of Diamond Alkali. The Superfund is the federal government's program to locate, investigate and clean up the worst uncontrolled and abandoned toxic waste sites around the country.
The Environmental Protection Agency -administers the program, which was once paid for by taxes on companies responsible for creating the pollution. President Bush, however, has discontinued enforcement for the Superfund tax, largely eliminating the EPAâ€™s capacity to carry out its mandate.
The Newark Bay area is populated by many homeless people, as well as recent immigrants from Latin America and Asia, many who relied on fishing in their native countries. According to Rev. Harper, these immigrants fish for crabs and other food both as a way to survive and to connect with the lifestyles of their homeland. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has made inroads in some of these communities by placing warning signs against eating crabs and fish from the bay in Spanish, Portuguese and English, but many recent immigrants and homeless remain in the dark about the risks, or are simply too hungry to care.
For their parts, the Port Authority and Army Corps say they are acting responsibly.
"Our environmental record here is extremely strong," Steve Coleman, a spokesperson for the Port Authority, told The NewStandard. Coleman says the Port Authority employs many environmental safeguards, pointing out that cleaner-burning, environmentally-friendly cranes are in the process of being installed at all of the agencyâ€™s terminal facilities.
Though unwilling to comment on the impending litigation, Army Corps officials insist that their project will not open the Pandoraâ€™s Box of contaminants claimed by environmentalists. They say the exact boundaries of the Superfund site are hazy, and that sediments in the areas they plan to dredge are only mildly contaminated.
"By and large 80 percent of it is really virgin material that has not been exposed to the recent sedimentation," said Bill Slezak, project manager for the Army Corpsâ€™ New York District Harbor Programs Branch.
Slezak says the Army Corps uses slow-moving, rubber-sealed dredge buckets to minimize sediment spillage on the trip up to the surface.
But Willner argues that the Army Corpsâ€™ contractors do not necessarily follow those rules.
"Weâ€™ve seen them use a backhoe type bucket in Newark Bay," Willner said. "Weâ€™ve seen contractors using a fast lift until they see the Baykeeper boat, then slow down. Itâ€™s hard when you see one thing and the Corps observes another."
As for the Superfundâ€™s overseer, the EPA says it is unclear to what extent the Bay is contaminated by dioxin from Diamond Alkali, but the Agency claims confidence that the Army Corps will meet environmental requirements.
"The Army Corps has to meet the standards and requirements of their navigation dredging program," David Kluesner, a spokesperson for the EPA, told TNS. "I presume they will meet those requirements."
But some say that the requirements themselves are outdated.
"There are sediments that we as an environmental community consider contaminated that maybe the Department of Environmental Protection and Army Corps donâ€™t consider to be contaminated," said Dr. Jennifer Samson, principal scientist for Clean Ocean Action. "Itâ€™s the techniques they use to determine the content level that we donâ€™t agree with."
One month after environmentalists urged the Army Corps to delay the project and just days after their intent to sue was announced, the Army Corps advanced its dredging plans on January 6 by awarding a contract to continue deepening Arthur Kill channel, parts of which also fall within the Diamond Alkali Superfund area. Critics said it demonstrated a degree of disregard for the caution urged by environmentalists.
"They just want to dig," said Hackensack Riverkeeper Captain Bill Sheehan. "Theyâ€™ve got this huge project to deepen the harbor because they insist thereâ€™s going to be 50 foot draft boats here. The Port Authority in New York/New Jersey wants to be the biggest, deepest port -- the top gunslinger on the East coast. God help anything or anybody that tries to get in their bay."