A little bit of open space and public access to the Hudson County banks of the Passaic River could be on the way, thanks to a new proposal from two federal agencies.
A draft restoration plan for the Passaic River, released Tuesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the national Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, calls for a new five-acre park to be built on the waterfront in East Newark.
The planned park is part of efforts to remediate the toxic Diamond Alkali superfund site, which encompasses more than 17 miles of the river from Newark Bay to the Dundee Dam in Garfield. That stretch of the river was soiled by decades of industrial pollution, most notably by the Diamond Alkali company, which once produced Agent Orange on the river banks in Newark. The state has warned people against eating fish or crabs from this part of the Passaic River since 1982.
The proposed park would be funded by an unnamed entity that has been identified by the federal government as potentially responsible for pollution at both the Diamond Alkali site and the Berry’s Creek superfund site in the Meadowlands.
The USFWS declined to say which company or person is the polluter in this situation, citing ongoing settlement negotiations. The agency also declined to give a cost estimate for the park for the same reasons.
According to the plan, that unnamed entity will create the new park at the site of a currently unused concrete lot. The plan calls for the shoreline to be stabilized, new walkways to be installed to improve public access, trees and other native plants to be planted and a parking lot limited to handicap spaces to minimize the amount of impervious surfaces at the site.
The plan does not give a specific location for the park (again, the USFWS cited ongoing negotiations) but there are only so many lots where it could go in East Newark, which is the second smallest municipality in New Jersey at just over 0.1 square miles. Much of the borough’s waterfront consists of vacant lots owned by the chemical giant BASF and other companies at the corner of Central Avenue and Passaic Avenue. Across the street from those lots is a former industrial complex which is being redeveloped into more than 600 housing units and 90,000 square feet of retail space. Just a block away is the famed Tops Diner.
East Newark Mayor Dina Grilo and Borough Administrator Kevin Catrambone did not respond to requests for comment.
There is no specific timeline for building the park. Meagan Racey, a USFWS spokeswoman, said such a schedule is dependent on the plan being approved. But she added that the agency and its partners will make the work a high priority if the green light is given.
“Our hope is within a few years,” Racey said.
Such a park would be a welcome bit of green space in East Newark, a place packed with pavement and concrete. The park would also serve people in Newark, Kearny, Lyndhurst and other nearby communities, in part because access to the river is so limited. Riverfront Park in Newark’s Ironbound is the city’s only park with river access, and there are no such parks on the river in Hudson County.
“More than ever, people need access to safe, welcoming outdoor spaces to enjoy,” Racey said, citing the mental and physical health benefits of spending time outdoors.
Racey added that East Newark and its residents have historically been impacted by hazardous pollution, and creating a new park with river access would be one step to righting those wrongs.
If the new park is built, that unnamed entity will still be on the hook for further remediation costs elsewhere. The total liability is still being assessed, Racey said.
Cleanup work on the Passaic River has been slowly progressing since the Diamond Alkali site was first added to the national superfund list in 1984. The site of the actual Diamond Alkali facility has been capped to seal in pollution since 2001. In 2012, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a plan to dredge 16,000 cubic yards of contaminated mud from the river near Riverside Park in Lyndhurst; that work was completed in 2014.
Now, the EPA is working to implement a plan announced in 2016 to dredge 3.5 million cubic yards of polluted mud from more than eight miles of the river’s bottom, basically from Newark Bay to the Newark-Belleville border. After the dredging, the river will be capped to prevent any remaining contamination from seeping into the environment.
That remediation effort is overseen by the EPA, which expects cleaning the entire 17-mile stretch of the Passaic to cost $1.4 billion. That cost is supposed to be paid by the companies responsible for the pollution; a $165 million settlement in 2016 from Occidental Chemical Corporation, just one of the polluters, will help fund the dredging of the lower eight miles.
The USFWS and NOAA, meanwhile, are responsible for identifying how pollution at the site has damage natural resources, and finding ways to either restore those resources or acquire equivalent resources and public recreation opportunities. As part of that effort, the two agencies are studying how certain types of fish and birds have been affected by the areas pollution. Results of that research are expected to be released next year.
Public comment on the draft plan for the proposed East Newark park is open through January 22.
Public comments can be submitted in writing or through email to Clay Stern, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4 E. Jimmie Leeds Road, Suite 4, Galloway, New Jersey 08205, [email protected].
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Michael Sol Warren may be reached at [email protected].