Restoring the Lower Hackensack River:
Investigation and Cleanup under EPA’s Superfund Program

NJDEP Lower Hackensack River
Lower Hackensack River Cleanup

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is moving forward a plan to nominate the Lower Hackensack River for the National Priorities List of Superfund sites to achieve a comprehensive investigation and cleanup of this important and historic waterway.

DEP and EPA believe the time to act is now as remedial progress accelerates on the nearby Passaic River where widespread dioxin contamination is being addressed and in Berry’s Creek impacted by mercury, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and other pollutants. For the Lower Hackensack River, DEP will work with EPA to set in place the best sediment and water quality sampling and cleanup plan to address decades of industrial pollution that left mercury and other contaminants in river sediment that also impairs water quality.

What makes up the Lower Hackensack River

NJDEP Lower Hackensack River and towns along its banks
Figure 1:Lower Hackensack River and towns along its banks

The lower portion of the Hackensack River is 23 river miles from the Oradell dam to Newark Bay, all tidally influenced. The Lower Hackensack River section spans 20 municipalities in Bergen and Hudson counties and includes numerous parks, marinas and kayak/canoe launches that border the waterway, the Hackensack Meadowlands, and 17 primary tributaries. It is important to note that the Hackensack Meadowlands ecosystem is a significant and dominant feature of the Lower Hackensack River and includes 5,800 acres of estuarine wetlands. While residential land use dominates the Lower Hackensack River, industrial uses in the Hackensack Meadowlands including along Berry’s Creek, Overpeck Creek and Kearny Peninsula account for the major sources of contamination that have impacted the entire Lower Hackensack.

Superfund listing process and public participation:

Should EPA determine it appropriate to add the Lower Hackensack River to the National Priorities List as a Superfund Site, a formal notice of the proposed listing will be published in the Federal Register with a 60-day period to public comment provided. Upon expiration of the public comment period, EPA would reviewed and respond to the comments provided and determine whether final listing of the Lower Hackensack River on the Superfund list is warranted. If the nomination is finalized, the Superfund process includes federal public participation requirements from the initial investigation stage through actual cleanup work where river communities and the public at large would be further engaged in the process.

Why a Superfund cleanup?

DEP recognizes the importance of the Lower Hackensack River’s ecosystem to the 20 local communities that border its shoreline and to Hackensack River Keeper Captain Bill Sheehan, who has pursued added protections for many years. While a lengthy process, listing the Lower Hackensack River Superfund Site brings federal oversight, adding to state resources, to pursue potential responsible parties to conduct the remedial investigation and any necessary remedial action work. A Superfund status also qualifies the site for federal funds that can be used to initiate similar remedial work if responsible parties identified fail to act, in addition to state funding. In addition to the many lessons learned from the planned dredge and cap actions along the Passaic River as part of ongoing work at the Diamond Alkali Superfund site, EPA and DEP are working with responsible parties to clean up Upper Berry’s Creek, a tributary of the Lower Hackensack River. The Upper Berry’s Creek project, which is linked to the Ventron Velsicol, Universal Oil Products (UOP) and Scientific Chemical Processing (SCP) Superfund sites, also calls for implementation of an appropriate dredge and cap alternative based on ecological and human health remedial goals developed for the site.

What studies have already been done in the Lower Hackensack River?

EPA completed a Preliminary Assessment and Expanded Site Investigation for the Lower Hackensack River in 2015 and 2016. EPA’s studies included more than 350 sediment samples collected from the Oradell Dam to the mouth of the river at Newark Bay. Samples in the top few inches of sediment and two to six feet below the riverbed were biased toward depositional areas near both banks of the river. The samples were analyzed for metals (such as mercury and arsenic) and semi-volatiles (such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs). The investigation found elevated levels of mercury in sediment along most of the Lower Hackensack River, which is the most widespread contaminant found throughout this area, well below concentrations found in Upper Berry’s Creek but similar to levels found in Lower Berry’s Creek and its Canal section.

(See EPA’s Expanded Site Investigation for the Lower Hackensack River.)

Many other contaminants found in the Lower Hackensack River sediment also are above ecological screening levels. PAHs were noticeably elevated adjacent to the Koppers site along Kearny Peninsula. Further, dioxin contamination at the adjacent Standard Chlorine Superfund site has not been fully investigated in the river sediment. Potential responsible parties for these two sites and other Superfund sites have already indicated interest in working with EPA and DEP on an overall Lower Hackensack River cleanup.

Summary:

DEP believes that it is vital to support EPA in listing the Lower Hackensack River as a Superfund site to bring about a comprehensive cleanup of mercury and other contaminants in the waterway with enforcement actions to encourage responsible parties to fund the work. DEP supports efforts to help improve the ecosystem in the Lower Hackensack River and numerous north Jersey communities through which it flows. DEP looks forward to future cooperation with EPA during discussions on remedial work for the Lower Hackensack River and public outreach that will accompany these actions with local officials and residents.

For more information about EPA and DEP involvement in the Lower Hackensack Superfund listing, please contact EPA’s Superfund program or DEP’s remediation program working on the listing proposal, both noted below: