Local Groups Fight to Prevent Spread of Dioxin Contamination

NEW YORK (February 16, 2005) -- A coalition of local organizations filed for a preliminary injunction today to stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from dredging through a massive Superfund site in Newark Bay without considering proper safeguards to ensure dioxin and other toxic chemicals are not re-released into the New York and New Jersey waterways.

Groups filing the action include NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), NY/NJ Baykeeper, and GreenFaith. They want to ensure that the Corps uses safe methods for removing contaminated sediment before starting the giant underwater dig, which is part of a 10-year, multi-billion-dollar project by the Corps and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey to open New York Harbor and Newark Bay to deep-draft container ships.

The groups also want to make sure that the dredging is coordinated with the ongoing Superfund clean-up of the waterways. The Corps intends to dredge and blast through the site before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and others sample it for exact contamination levels that would lead to a clean-up plan. Contracts for portions of the site's dredging have already been awarded.

"With proper safeguards this could be a win-win situation. We all agree the waste must be removed, but the law says it has to be done safely," said NRDC attorney Brad Sewell. "Simply bulldozing through this toxic waste dump is illegal. The Army Corps needs to step back and review the very profound long-term consequences of its dredging plan."

Known as the Diamond Alkali Superfund site, the area in question includes Newark Bay and portions of the adjacent Kill van Kull and Arthur Kill bordering Staten Island. The site contains toxic chemicals that flowed in from industrial facilities on the Passaic River, including a now-closed plant that made Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

The Corps will use enormous dredges to dig up the contaminated sediment. Underwater explosives will also be used to remove rock adjacent to contaminated sediment. The Corps itself concedes that its dredging will disperse the contaminated sediment as much as a mile away.

"Without a better plan, the Corps will spread some of the nation's most contaminated sediments throughout our waterways. Newark Bay and its surrounding waters are public property. New Jersey citizens have the right to dredging methods that will protect their health and environment," said NY/NJ Baykeeper Andrew Willner.

Scientists have called Newark Bay one of the world's worst dioxin-contaminated sites, with layers of polluted sediment contributing to dangerous dioxin levels in blue crabs, fish, and fish-eating birds. EPA believes concentrations of dioxin recorded in Passaic River and Newark Bay blue crabs may be the highest ever discovered in aquatic animals. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has banned crabbing in and around Newark Bay because of an "extremely high" cancer risk and recommends strict limits on consumption of fish caught in the area. Research has also uncovered high dioxin levels in certain marine fish species caught by anglers throughout the NY/NJ region.

"We have a moral obligation to ensure residents living around Newark Bay are afforded the same level of protection as those communities living near the General Electric Superfund site on the Hudson River, where dredging will follow strict precautions and incorporate strong protocols to protect the public and the wider community of life," said Rev. Fletcher Harper, Executive Director of GreenFaith, a New Jersey interfaith group.

In November 2003, NRDC, NY/NJ 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. In February 2004, the EPA determined that the Bay posed an "imminent and substantial" risk and incorporated it into the existing Superfund site for the Agent Orange factory site.

The Corps' dredging plan interferes with the Superfund effort to study, contain and clean up the contamination. By scattering the pollution from the site, the agencies could shift clean up costs from the polluting companies now responsible for fixing the mess to American taxpayers, according to NRDC legal experts.

Today's request for a preliminary injunction marks the next step in a suit first filed on January 21 against the Corps to force the agency to review the environmental and health risks from its poorly-planned dredging plan, which will disperse far greater amounts of contaminated sediments than is reasonably necessary. On January 4 the coalition delivered notice of intent to sue the Corps and the Port Authority 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.