NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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How Do You Begin to Clean up a Century of Pollution on New Jersey’s Passaic River?

A mechanical dredge pulls contaminated sediment from the bottom of the Passaic River.

A mechanical dredge removes sediment from an area with high dioxin concentrations on the Passaic River, adjacent to the former Diamond Alkali facility in Newark, New Jersey. (NOAA)

Dozens of companies share responsibility for the industrial pollution on New Jersey’s Passaic River, and several Superfund sites dot the lower portion of the river. But one of the perhaps best-known of these companies (and Superfund sites) is Diamond Alkali.

In the mid-20th century, Diamond Alkali (later Diamond Shamrock Chemicals Company) and others manufactured pesticides and herbicides, including those constituting “Agent Orange,” along the Passaic. The toxic waste from these activities left an undeniable mark on the river, which winds about 80 miles through northern New Jersey until it meets the Hackensack River and forms Newark Bay.

Fortunately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with support from the natural resource trustees, including NOAA, U.S. Department of Interior, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and the New York State Department of Environmental Protection, has released a plan to clean up the lower eight miles of the Passaic River, which passes through Newark.

Those lower eight miles are where 90 percent of the river’s contaminated sediments are located [PDF] and addressing contamination in this section of the river is an important first step.

A History of War

Ruins of an old railroad bridge end part way over the Passaic River.

Ruins of an old Central Railroad of New Jersey bridge along the Passaic River hint at a bustling era of industrialization gone by. (Credit: Joseph, Creative Commons)

A major contributor to that contamination came from what is known as Agent Orange, a mix of “tactical herbicides,” which the U.S. military sprayed from 1962 to 1971 during the Vietnam War. These herbicides removed tropical foliage hiding enemy soldiers.

However, an unwanted byproduct of manufacturing Agent Orange was the extremely toxic dioxin known as TCDD. Dioxins are commonly released into the environment from burning waste, diesel exhaust, chemical manufacturing, and other processes. The EPA classifies TCDD as a human carcinogen (cause of cancer).

Pollution on the Passaic River stretches back more than two centuries, but its 20th century industrial history has left traces of dioxins, pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals, and volatile organic compounds in sediments of the Passaic River and surrounding the Diamond Alkali site. Testing in the early 1980s confirmed this contamination, and the area was added to the National Priorities List, becoming a Superfund site in 1984.

Many of these contaminants persist for a long time in the environment, meaning concentrations of them have declined very little in the last 20 years. As a result of this pollution, no one should eat fish or crab caught from the Lower Passaic River, a 17 mile stretch of river leading to Newark Bay.

Finding a Solution

But how do you clean up such a complex and toxic history? The federal and state trustees for the Lower Passaic River provided technical support as EPA grappled with this question, debating two possible cleanup options, or “remedies,” for the river. The cleanup option EPA ultimately settled on involves dredging 3.5 million cubic yards of contaminated sediments from the river bottom and removing those sediments from the site. Then, a two-foot-deep “cap” made of sand and stone will be placed over contaminated sediments remaining at the bottom of the river.

This will be an enormous effort—one cubic yard is roughly the size of a standard dishwasher. According to NOAA Regional Resource Coordinator Reyhan Mehran, it will be one of the largest dredging projects in Superfund history. While the entire project could take more than ten years, Judith Enck, EPA Regional Administrator for New York, has pointed out that the process involves “cleaning up over a century of toxic pollution.”

A Tale of Two Remedies

Aerial view of New York City skyline, Newark, and industrial river landscape.

Manhattan skyline from over Newark, New Jersey. The view is across the confluence of the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers and shows the industrial buildup in the area. (Credit: Doc Searls, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Mehran describes the alternatives analysis as a complicated one—choosing between two cleanup remedies, the one described above and an “in-water” disposal solution. This second approach called for removing the contaminated sediments from the riverbed and burying them in Newark Bay, in what is known as a “confined aquatic disposal cell.” That essentially involves digging a big hole in the bottom of the bay, removing the clean sediments for use elsewhere, filling it with the contaminated sediments, and capping it to keep everything in place.

While the less expensive of the two options, serious concerns were raised about the potential effect this in-water solution would have on the long-term ecosystem health of Newark Bay.

The chosen remedy, which calls for removing the contaminated sediment from the riverbed and transporting it away by rail to a remote site on land, was selected as the better solution for the long-term health of the ecosystem. Finding the best option incorporated the scientific support and analysis of NOAA and the trustees.

As NOAA’s Mehran explains, “The site, with some of the highest concentrations of dioxins in sediment, is in the middle of one of the most densely populated parts of our nation, which makes the threat to public resources tremendous.”

While the upper and middle segments of the Passaic River flow through forests and natural marshes, areas bordering the lower river are densely populated and industrial. Because of industrialization, habitat for wildlife within Newark Bay has already been severely altered, yet the bay’s shallow waters continue to provide critically needed habitat for fish such as winter flounder, migratory birds including herons and egrets, and numerous other species.

“The watershed of the Lower Passaic River and Newark Bay is highly developed,” emphasizes Mehran, “and the resulting scarcity of ecological habitat makes it all the more valuable and important to protect and restore.”

Learn more about the cleanup plan for the Lower Passaic River [PDF].

Photo of Jersey Central Ruins used courtesy of Joseph, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

Photo of Manhattan skyline with Passaic and Hackensack Rivers used courtesy of Doc Searls, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


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Creative Solutions Save Money and Marsh Along Galveston Bay, Texas

Hazardous waste sites create a cascade of impacts that affect the health of communities, water quality, and the local environment. That’s why the long-term cleanup and restoration of these sites often requires a coordinated—and creative—regional approach.

This was certainly the case for the Malone Services Company hazardous waste site in Texas City, Texas. By combining efforts and funding in unexpected ways, federal, state and local partners came up with the most effective restoration solutions for the area, saving time and money along the way.

A Hazardous History

Located on the shores of Swan Lake and Galveston Bay, the 150-acre Malone facility produced decades of pollution affecting both groundwater within the site and runoff into nearby surface waters, creating long-term contamination problems for the region. Hundreds of businesses sent more than 480 million gallons of waste to the Malone facility for reclamation, storage, and disposal. During its operation from 1964 to 1997, waste products from those industries included acids, contaminated residues, solvents, and waste oils.

Designated a Superfund site in 2001, state and federal agencies collaborated early on during the cleanup, investigating the extent of the contamination, assessing which natural resources were affected, and planning restoration solutions to make up for these impacts. By sharing information they all needed, the agencies avoided additional costs from performing independent studies.

Aerial view of Malone Services Company waste site next to wetlands and Galveston Bay.

An aerial view of the Malone Services Company hazardous waste site shows the proximity of wetlands and Galveston Bay. (Department of the Interior)

Officially called “trustees,” the state and federal agencies involved included the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas General Land Office, NOAA, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Working together, the trustees carried out the Natural Resources Damage Assessment process for the Malone waste site. In 2012, they reached a settlement with the responsible parties for approximately $3.1 million. In the settlement, the trustees determined that Malone’s pollution had significant negative impacts on natural resources, affecting upland-woodland, freshwater marsh, and saltwater marsh habitat around the Malone site.

To restore those natural resources, the trustees finalized the damage assessment and restoration plan [PDF] in 2015.  Key elements of the plan center on restoring nearby natural areas, including freshwater wetlands in Campbell Bayou, terrestrial woodlands in the Virginia Peninsula Preserve, and intertidal saltwater wetlands in Pierce Marsh.

Creative Restoration at Pierce Marsh

Situated on the north shore of West Galveston Bay, not far from the Malone site, Pierce Marsh covers more than 2,300 acres, supports vibrant seasonal and year-round bird and fish populations, and is home to commercial and recreational fisheries. It is also located near vital, colonial water bird nesting islands and serves as an important feeding area during the nesting season.

However, the marsh became completely flooded by the 1990s, compromising its habitat quality as the ground beneath it sank due to subsidence. “Pierce Marsh has experienced one of the greatest rates of wetland loss in Galveston Bay and the restoration of its fish and wildlife habitat is recognized as a regional restoration priority,” noted Jamie Schubert, NOAA Restoration Center Marine Habitat Specialist. The Galveston Bay Foundation, a co-owner of the land, has spent the last 15 years methodically restoring the marsh.

Money from the Malone settlement is funding the restoration of 70 acres of wetland at Pierce Marsh. Having each federal and state agency contribute to a portion of the success—through the funding, planning, engineering, design, permitting, implementation, or monitoring—this restoration project has saved time and money.

Birds swoop over a pipeline releasing mud into a marsh.

Sediments pouring from the end of a long pipeline are raising the ground elevation of Pierce Marsh, improving habitat for birds and fish and helping make up for the loss of similar habitat due to pollution at the Malone waste site. (Credit: John Morris/Mike Hooks, Inc.)

One cost-saving example came out of NOAA habitat conservation experts and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager, Seth Jones, both serving on an Interagency Coordination Team for the Texas Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. The Corps maintains the waterway, dredging it deep and wide enough to meet current shipping demands. Out of those meetings emerged the idea to “beneficially” use the sediments from the waterway dredging to raise the ground level of Pierce Marsh.

“Our project delivery team included NOAA, the Galveston Bay Foundation, Texas Parks and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Texas General Land Office, and the Texas Department of Transportation,” said Jones. “It was because of their instrumental input throughout the design phase that we are going to get a good start on the Galveston Bay Foundation’s long-term marsh restoration plan at Pierce Marsh complex.”

To pay for transportation of the dredged sediments to restore the marsh, the Texas trustees recommended that combined settlement funds from the Malone Services Company site, the Tex Tin hazardous waste site (also in the area), and another Texas state pollution case could help fund the needed restoration, yielding more restoration for their dollars.

“This beneficial use project has multiple benefits—it keeps the dredged material away from existing seagrass areas in West Bay and helps restore lost wetland habitat that has disappeared over the last fifty years in this area,” said Bob Stokes, President of Galveston Bay Foundation.

A Restoration Recipe for Success

Small levee of sediment and grass in a marsh.

A small levee constructed in Pierce Marsh, near Galveston Bay, Texas, contains dredged sediments that will restore marsh elevation and improve habitat quality. (NOAA)

Members of the trustee council have expressed enthusiasm for the project as well. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is excited to be part of the Pierce Marsh restoration project, which will restore estuary marsh habitat and benefit migratory birds and waterfowl,” said Benjamin Tuggle, Southwest Regional Director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Multiple state, federal, and NGO partners have come together to restore contaminated areas at the Malone site.”

The Texas trustees anticipate building upon these efforts and using this approach to continue restoring coastal marshes, making ongoing monitoring of the project very important. They have partnered with Galveston Bay Foundation and Ducks Unlimited to monitor sediment settlement rates, which are used to assess project success and inform future projects.

“The Pierce Marsh reclamation project will make a significant contribution to restoring the coastal wetlands and natural resources that have been lost over time in this part of West Galveston Bay,” according to Richard Seiler, Program Manager of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Natural Resource Trustee Program. “The project represents a true team effort between the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the other state and federal natural resource trustees, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and our NGO partners, the Galveston Bay Foundation and Ducks Unlimited.”

The restoration of Pierce Marsh is a success story of interagency cooperation and partner coordination. Federal and state agencies and non-profit organizations with differing missions came together on a project that would benefit everyone involved. Working together to share financial and technical resources, ultimately enabled them to use sediment historically viewed as waste material to restore vital coastal habitat, enhancing the area for wildlife and fisheries for generations to come.