Lawsuit Planned to Stop Unsafe Dredging, Blasting of Superfund Sediments

NEWARK, NJ (January 4, 2005) -- A 10-year, multibillion-dollar dredging project to open New York Harbor and Newark Bay to larger ships is on a collision course with an underwater Superfund site thanks to reckless management by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Port Authority, according to groups concerned about the resulting health and environmental impacts.

Despite more than a year of warnings about the risk of dioxin and other contamination, the government agencies are scheduled to begin blasting and dredging of port channels that cut through the Superfund site, without adequate safeguards to prevent contamination from spreading. As currently designed, the project will re-release dioxin left over from Agent Orange production during the Vietnam War, and other dangerous chemicals, into local waterways and the broader regional environment.

To prevent this from happening, a coalition of groups including NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), New York/New Jersey Baykeeper, and GreenFaith today delivered notice of their intent to sue the agencies for violating the federal Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The groups are represented by NRDC and the Rutgers Law School Environmental Law Clinic. The suit aims to force the agencies to develop a safe plan for removing the contaminated sediments before proceeding with the massive underwater dig.

"It's like dropping depth charges into one of the biggest toxic waste dumps on the East Coast with no thought at all about the consequences," said NRDC attorney Brad Sewell. "This has the potential to be a win-win situation. Hazardous material must eventually be removed from the Bay anyhow. But without safeguards they are going to wind up spreading toxic contamination into important recreational and commercial waterways."

At issue is the Diamond Alkali Superfund site that includes Newark Bay and portions of the adjacent Kill van Kull and Arthur Kill, where contaminants settled after flowing down the Passaic River from a chemical plant in Newark. The Corps and Port Authority plan years of dredging to deepen and widen the shipping channels, which will release dioxin-laced sediment into the water current. Underwater explosives will also be used to remove rock adjacent to contaminated sediments. Work could start as early as this winter.

"Dioxin is among the world's most toxic substances; it causes cancer and has no safe level of exposure. While the Corps' own policies require it to re-evaluate civil works projects when a Superfund site is declared within project boundaries, the Corps has yet to do so," said New York/New Jersey Baykeeper Andrew Willner. "The Corps' actions are dangerous and unnecessary--it simply hasn't done its homework to figure out a safer way to dredge."

Scientists have called Newark Bay one of the world's worst dioxin-contaminated sites, with layers of polluted sediment contributing to dangerous levels in blue crabs, fish, and fish-eating birds. Additionally, research indicates high dioxin levels in certain marine fish species that travel, and are caught by anglers, within the broader Hudson-Raritan (New York-New Jersey Harbor) Estuary complex. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has banned crabbing in and around Newark Bay, and recommends strict limits on consumption of many types of fish caught in the area.

In November 2003, NRDC, Baykeeper, and Hackensack Riverkeeper announced plans to sue Occidental Chemical Corp., the company responsible for the defunct Agent Orange plant, to force a cleanup of Newark Bay. At the last minute, after years of foot-dragging, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognized the Bay and adjacent waters as part of the Superfund site, reaching agreement with Occidental to devise a cleanup plan. But the existing dredging plan threatens to undermine this effort before it gets off the ground because it interferes with the study, containment, and remediation of the risks from these contaminants.

By scattering the pollution from the site, the agencies could wind up shifting the cost of clean-up on to the American taxpayers, instead of the polluting companies now responsible for fixing the mess, according to NRDC legal experts.

"Many local residents rely on the Bay's crabs and fish to help feed their families--their catch looks healthy, but it's toxic," said Rev. Fletcher Harper, Executive Director of GreenFaith, a New Jersey interfaith group. "We have a moral responsibility to be good stewards of our shared environment and health. The government has done so much to make sure dredging in the Hudson River Superfund site doesn't stir up the poisons there, and Newark Bay deserves the same protection."