Dredging began on a small section of the Passaic River in Newark, N.J. this week, more than 200 years after the first industries dumped their waste there.
Under the watchful eye of federal environmental officials, a contractor's dredge is digging 12 feet deep into the muck under the water's surface in what will be a summer-long effort to remove tons of dioxin-laced sediment from New Jersey's most polluted river.
"Anytime they pull contaminated sediments out of the river, that's a good thing," said Capt. Bill Sheehan, riverkeeper of the nearby Hackensack River.
But Sheehan and others are concerned that the dredging finally underway is for only a small sliver of the river, immediately in front of the old Diamond Alkali plant where the dioxin was dumped.
It was used to make Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant of the Vietnam War that stripped away the jungle canopy.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified a 17-mile stretch of the Passaic as a Superfund site, with dioxin throughout that stretch due to its back-and-forth tidal action, as well as other industrial waste.
The Passaic was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution, according to EPA Project Manager Elizabeth Butler. Upstream in Paterson, Alexander Hamilton laid out plans for some of the nation's first industry, using the water power of the Great Falls.
But the dioxin from Agent Orange is the worst toxin, and is the key reason the lower Passaic is closed to fishing and crabbing, with signs banning the harvest of even one crab for eating purposes, often with a big "cancer" warning on them.
Tierra Solutions Inc. was set up by a Diamond Alkali successor to manage the cleanup of dioxin and is paying the approximately $80 million cost of the initial dredging.
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