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EPA Unveils Passaic River Cleanup Plan

NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) -- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials have unveiled a plan for the cleanup of the heavily contaminated Passaic River in New Jersey.

As CBS2's Vanessa Murdock reported, many say the revitalization is long awaited and overdue.

Ducks and geese can be seen playing on the Passaic River in Newark, and at a glance, it is peaceful and even pretty.

But beneath the surface, potentially deadly toxins sit in the sediment.

"I think it's amazing you can't use the river on a hot summer day," said EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck. People fish on the river. They shouldn't, because there is literally cancer-causing chemicals in the fish and the crabs."

For more than a century, 100-plus companies contributed to the river's demise, dumping dioxins, PCBs and heavy metals.

"Please understand that there should be yellow crime scene tape around the Passaic River right now," said U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) "This city's main artery – the reason the city was founded -- was the Passaic River. It was stolen from us."

Officials on Friday said they will be talking the river back.

The plan calls for about 20 percent less contaminated river mud to be removed compared to a proposal that was introduced two years ago. That is because officials plan to dredge less of the river.

An estimated 3.5 million-cubic yards of toxic sediment will be removed from an 8.3-mile stretch of the river from Newark Bay to the Belleville-Newark Border. The sediment that will be removed is enough to fill the Red Bull Arena three times.

The river will be capped from bank to bank to prevent any more toxins from surfacing.

"This was a very carefully-considered plan," Enck said.

Before the dredging begins, the cost of clean-up -- $1.38 billion dollars -- has to be acquired from the polluters.

About 100 companies that either polluted the river or inherited the liability of past polluters that date back more the 200 years will be asked to pay for the cleanup.

WEB EXTRA: Up-To-Date List Of Companies Responsible

"This really is about making those who over a century polluted the river be the responsible parties to clean it up," said U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.)

Booker said the cost is a small price to pay.

"If we actually made them pay the full cost of the damage that they did, you'd have to visit the people who in this area were born with birth defects or with autism," Booker said.

A spokesman for one of the companies managing clean-up commented on the plan.

"For twenty years, we have acted responsibly on the river, and in cooperation with the EPA – under their order and to date -- we are in full compliance with everything to date," said Michael Turner, spokesman for Maxus and Tierra.

Turner said his company plans to work with the EPA this time around too. That was music to local Franklin Norton's ears, as he recalls swimming and fishing in this river.

"We used to go down in Newark Bay and go skinny dipping," Norton said.

But Norton said he has not swum in the river in 40 years, and it could be another 40 before anyone can swim or eat the fish from the Passaic again.

"It is going to take decades to heal the river, but this cleanup is the best shot," Enck said.

The plan is being criticized by the Sierra Club's Jeff Tittel.

"They follow political science, they did what they thought would be political expedient to try to get the responsible parties, those polluters who contaminated the river, to sign on," Tittel said.

If all goes according to plan, the cleanup will take 11 years to complete.

(TM and © Copyright 2016 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)


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