Four Toxic Rivers: A Super Sad True Superfund Story

Updated: November 11, 2011 at 02:48 PM

A man walks through flooded Newark, N.J. after Tropical Storm Irene caused the lower Passaic River to overflow. The Passaic contains PCBs, mercury, heavy metals and dioxin, the active ingredient in Agent Orange. AP/Julio Cortez.

In recent months, massive clean-up operations and environmental studies have begun on four of the most polluted waterways in the U.S. — all of them in the Tri-State area. Parts of the Passaic River, the Hudson River, the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek have all been deemed Superfund sites, meaning abandoned hazardous waste made them so highly toxic that the government required the parties responsible for polluting them to pay for their cleanup.

The process of cleaning a Superfund site is an economically, politically and physically arduous one. So in the wake of last week’s news about the dredging of the Hudson and PassaicMetroFocus examined how the responsible parties plan to clean our waters.

This graphic shows the steps involved in the first phase of cleaning the lower Passaic River. Construction of the dredging enclosure began on Oct. 31. Image courtesy of the EPA.

The Passaic River, Northern New Jersey — from Garfield, N.J. to the mouth of the Newark Bay

When it became a Superfund site: 1984

What’s in the water: Polychlorinated biphenyls, commonly known as PCBs, are toxic organic compounds that adversely affect the nervous system of humans and animals. Once commonly used in manufacturing, PCBs take hundreds of years to break down in the environment. Also here: mercury; DDT and other pesticides; heavy metals; and most notably dioxin, the active chemical in Agent Orange.

Background: Throughout the 20th century, the banks of the Passaic were lined with mills and factories, causing severe pollution. The worst offender was the Diamond Shamrock Chemical Plant in Newark, which produced the chemical weapon Agent Orange, according to The Star-Ledger. The sediment at the bottom of the river’s mouth, near Newark, is lined with dioxin, a carcinogenic component of Agent Orange. Diamond Shamrock went out of business before the area was declared a Superfund site, but this past summer, after years of legal wrangling, a federal judge forced the companies that now own the site, Tierra Solutions Inc. and Occidental Chemical Corporation, to clean up the river.

What’s happening now: Under an agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency and the two companies, Tierra and Occidental, a total of 200,000 cubic yards of polluted sediment will be dredged from the lower Passaic. The EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers will oversee the dredging. On Oct. 31, the EPA announced the start of construction on the first of two phases of dredging. Because of fears that dredging could stir up toxins and disperse them into the Atlantic Ocean, a construction team will first build a massive enclosure around the work site, then build a pipeline to transport the sediment downstream to the Upland Processing Facility in Newark, and finally bury the sediment in a landfill. The dredging will begin in March of 2012.

A map showing the Hudson River Superfund area. The second phase of cleanup began in June. Image courtesy of Mound of Sound.

The Hudson River — from Hudson Falls, N.Y. to Battery Park in Lower Manhattan

When it became a Superfund site: 2002

What’s in the water: Enough PCBs that fish have developed a genetic mutation that makes them immune to the chemical compounds, according to National Geographic.

Background: Between 1947 and 1977, General Electric operated two manufacturing plants in Hudson Falls. For 30 years, the plants dumped more than one million pounds of  PCBs directly into the river, where they seeped into the sediment, according to the EPA. As a result, fish in the river pose great risk to humans if ingested and can cause low-birth weight, memory problems, immune system disorders and thyroid disease, according to the EPA.

The EPA pulled this Atlantic Tomcod from the Hudson River. This fish, and others, were found to have developed mutant genes linked to pollution. Photo courtesy of

In 2002, the EPA declared the Hudson River a Superfund site, and General Electric was charged with cleaning 40 miles of the river. In 2009, the EPA and General Electric spent six months dredging 10 sites on the river, processing the sediment and performing wildlife restoration as part of the first phase of the cleanup. As was the case with the Passaic, the dredging operation sparked fears among state environmental regulators about the possibility of PCBs surfacing into the water. In response, General Electric created an experimental system of wells and tunnels to shuttle sediment from the sediment caked at the bottom of the river to nearby processing facilities, without it entering the water.

What’s happening now: On Nov. 2, General Electric announced that its well and pipeline system had successfully prevented PCB-contaminated groundwater from surfacing, and will continue to be used as part of phase two of the cleanup. Phase two began last June, and requires the EPA and General Electric to dredge 2.4 million tons of sediment from the most polluted parts of the river, over a 40-mile stretch of the Hudson between Fort Edward and Troy. The long-delayed recovery is expected to take five to seven years.

Map showing the Newtown Creek Superfund site. The area in pink delineates the oil spill underneath Greenpoint, Brooklyn.The area is blue is zoned for residential use. Image courtesy of Riverkeeper.

Newtown Creek, from Greenpoint/Long Island City to Bushwick, Brooklyn

When it became a Superfund site: 2010

What’s in the water: Lots of oil resulting from a big oil spill; PCBs; raw sewage; pesticides; volatile organic compounds; heavy metals; and a  chemical conglomerate known as “black mayonnaise” because of its texture.

Background: Newtown Creek, a 3.8-mile estuary of the New York-New Jersey Harbor, was one of the busiest industrial centers in New York City from the mid-1800s to the mid-20th century. Over 50 factories and refineries lined the banks of the creek, which was crowded with ships transporting raw materials. In 1856, the city began dumping raw sewage directly into the creek, but it gets worse.

In 1978, a helicopter discovered a large plume of oil in the creek. An investigation determined that historic refineries had leaked somewhere between 17 and 30 million gallons of oil underneath residential Greenpoint over the course of the past century. It was at the time the worst spill in North American history (the Deepwater Horizon disaster took that mantle in 2010).  Much of that oil continues to seep into the creek. However, no action was taken until 1990, when New York State ordered Mobil Oil Corporation — a direct descendant of Standard Oil Company, which later became ExxonMobil — to perform what most environmental advocates said was a feeble attempt at a cleanup.

The view of Newtown Creek from the Pulaski Bridge, which separates Greenpoint, Brooklyn from Long Island City, Queens. Active industry, visible in the photo, sprawls along the banks of the creek. MetroFocus/Sam Lewis.

In 2004, the clean water advocacy organization Riverkeeper brought a federal lawsuit against ExxonMobil. In 2005, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz joined the lawsuit and in 2007, then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo also signed on. The lawsuit was settled for $25 million in 2010, and $19.5 million of the settlement went toward environmental restoration projects, reported the New York Times. The EPA finally declared Newtown Creek a Superfund site in September, 2010, and a preliminary study thereafter determined that multiple companies are responsible for the pollution in the creek, which is evaporating into the air. Also, fish cannot survive in the water.


The New York Dredgers spend their free time doing what some consider unthinkable: canoeing the polluted Gowanus Canal. Video courtesy of

What’s happening now: In July, the EPA entered into an agreement with the polluters — ExxonMobil, BP, Phelps Dodge, Texaco and the City of New York — to fund a $750,000 EPA-conducted study of exactly what is in the creek. The study, which began in September, will take five to seven years. The EPA estimates that removing any of the contaminants will take at least 10 years, and could cost up to $400 million. On Nov. 2, the city agreed to fund $7 million worth of green projects on Newtown Creek, including a new boathouse and wetland restoration, reported the Daily News.

Pictured above are debris found on the banks of the Gowanus Canal. The EPA is currently conducting its second study of the Superfund site, but the agency says it may never be safe for swimming. Flickr/f.trainer

Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn — from Red Hook to Park Slope, Brooklyn

When it became a Superfund site: 2010

What’s in the water: Cement, oil, PCBs, tar, coal, sewage.

Background: In 1849, the New York State legislature voted to transform Brooklyn’s Gowanus Creek into a 1.5-mile long canal, spanning Red Hook to Park Slope. The canal was used to ship most of the brownstone used to build up South Brooklyn. Manufacturing sites, including chemical plants, sprouted up around the canal’s banks. Because of rampant pollution, the city used to dredge the canal every few years, and after WWII dredging operations were taken over by the U.S. Army, but theArmy completed the final dredging operation in 1955.

Since the canal is only open at one end, the water is basically stagnant, and only contains one-quarter of the oxygen required to support life. Nearby sewage overflows frequently flood the canal with raw human waste. In 1994, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection refurnished an old tidal pump to circulate water in the canal and reduce pollution, with lackluster results.

What’s happening now: In March, 2010, the EPA designated the Gowanus Canal a Superfund site. Last February, after a year-long study, the EPA confirmed that the canal is even more polluted than initially suspected, and may never be safe for swimming or fishing. The EPA is currently performing a second study. The city has pledged $136 million toward improving sewage overflows, which it says will bring in cleaner water and help flush out polluted sediment. On Feb. 16, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation fined the MCIZ Corporation, a bus company, $482,750 for years of illegal dumping in the Gowanus. In 2012, the EPA will select a method to begin cleaning the canal.

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