James M. O'Neil reports for The Record:
Hundreds of sediment samples taken from the Hackensack River indicate that the riverbed is laced for 22 miles with a toxic cocktail made up of dozens of contaminants, from its mouth in Newark Bay up to the Oradell Reservoir.
The samples affirm earlier research by the Environmental Protection Agency, which found elevated levels of cadmium, lead, mercury, cancer-causing dioxin and PCBs, enough for the EPA to conclude the river's contaminants cause a potential health threat to humans and wildlife.
The sediment samples were the most recent step in the EPA’s effort to determine whether the lower Hackensack should be added to the Superfund program, which is designed to clean up the nation’s most contaminated sites.
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The EPA and the state Department of Environmental Protection are still analyzing the sediment data and have not come to any conclusions about it, officials from both agencies said.
Any decision could be influenced by the national political climate. During the election campaign, Donald Trump promised to dismantle or seriously scale back the EPA, and Scott Pruitt, the president's pick to head the agency, is expected to cut staffing levels.
It's not clear what that would mean for the Superfund program, since cleanup costs are often covered by companies shown to have caused the pollution.
Several experts on river pollution who have seen the Hackensack data agree that the sediment samples show a widespread array of contamination that could pose a hazard.
They also express concern that, while contaminants are often viewed in isolation, the many contaminants in the Hackensack could possibly interact with one another, becoming more potent risks. Already research has shown the Hackensack pollution has caused severe abnormalities in aquatic life in the river.
“The river will never meet the federal clean water standards until the sediments are either removed or remediated in some manner,” said Beth Ravit, a Rutgers University environmental scientist who has researched aquatic life in the Hackensack. “It is also problematic to base the need for cleanup on one substance, albeit a very toxic one, such as mercury. The stew of organics and metals really needs to be considered.”
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