Skip to content

Troubled waters: N.J. still struggling to clean up polluted waterways, feds say, Oct. 26, 2014

By S.P. Sullivan

New Jersey is still struggling to clean up its rivers, lakes and streams as required by the Clean Water Act more than 40 years after the law was passed, federal officials say.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday belatedly approved New Jersey’s 2012 list of polluted waterways. According to the EPA, there are 1,770 instances where contaminants have tainted waters across the state.

That pollution ranges anywhere from nitrogen in a local stream to the dioxin-laden sediment at the bottom of the Passiac River, which is among the most toxic waters in the nation. PCBs, arsenic, phosphorus and low dissolved oxygen rank among the most common pollutants.

The list, compiled every two years, is used to assess pollution and develop clean up plans known.

Seventeen bodies of water were taken off the list by the EPA because they achieved federal standards, the agency said. More than 400 hundred others were removed because of changes in the state Department of Environmental Protection’s reporting criteria.

However, more than 300 sites were also added since 2010, according to an EPA spokesman.

Judith Enck, the EPA’s regional administrator, said New Jersey has made strides in improving water quality — including a new combined sewer permitting process that will reduce harmful pathogens — “but we still have a very long way to go.”

A DEP spokesman said the agency was “working hard” to bring the state’s waterways in line with the Clean Water Act, and another said the EPA’s assessment of their water quality data was “misleading.”

Environmental groups, meanwhile, say both agencies have failed to clean up the state in the decades since the landmark law’s passage.

“We are disappointed that the EPA has signed off on New Jersey’s list because it is allowing them to hide their failures of cleaning up New Jersey’s water,” said Jeff Tittel, head of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This is a dirty deal for dirty water.”

Fewer than 3 percent of New Jersey’s waterways meet federal standards that would make them "fishable and swimmable,” down from 10 percent a decade earlier, according to a Sierra Club analysis of EPA data.

EPA spokesman John Martin couldn’t confirm those numbers, but said Friday that “close to every water body in New Jersey and most of the Northeast has at least one impairment.”

Chris Len, an environmental attorney for Hackensack Riverkeeper and NY/NJ Baykeeper, said that federal law requires the state to establish clean up plans for every impaired waterway, but had adopted just a dozen since the Clean Water Act’s passage.

“At some point 35 years go by and you just think, ‘This can’t go on like this,’” Len said.

He said that the EPA is empowered by federal law to reject the state’s list if it doesn’t meet federal standards, but despite a two-year review period, the agency did not appear to require significant changes.

“If they find the DEP’s not doing a good job, they should take over,” Len said. “That they released (the updated list) in a press release on a Friday lets you know what they think about it.”

Larry Ragonese, a DEP spokesman, said his agency is “making great progress in water quality in the nation’s most densely populated state,” addressing the combined sewer issue and working with the EPA on an extensive Superfund clean up along the Passaic.

“We’re taking the glass half full tack,” he said. “Because I think what we’re doing is working.”

Tittel disagreed.

“Is the glass half full or half empty?” Tittel said. “Whether it is or isn’t, you may not want to drink what’s in it.”

S.P. Sullivan may be reached at ssullivan. Follow him on Twitter. Find on Facebook.

Related News