Passaic River, Newark Bay Clean-Up Research

This summer Portland State University (PSU) Civil and Environmental Engineering professors David Jay and Stefan Talke embark on a multi-year study to investigate the transport of contaminants in one of the most polluted Superfund sites in the United States.

The goal of the study is to identify the most effective and practical remediation strategy tailored to the site’s unique environmental and human factors.

With a history that can be traced back to the beginning of the American Industrial Revolution, a significant amount of industrial pollution lies beneath the surface of Newark Bay and its tributary the 17-mile long tidal Lower Passaic River, part of the New York Harbor estuary system.

The Lower Passaic River itself is estimated to contain 9.7 million cubic yards of sediment contaminated by dioxins, PCBs, pesticides, hydrocarbons, mercury, lead, and other heavy metals in.

Typical remediation strategies for river clean-up include dredging, the removal of sediment from the river bottom, and/or capping and backfilling with clean sand to isolate contaminated areas. Because tidal currents move contaminants in all directions, including upstream, remediation of an estuary system is more complicated, resource intensive and expensive.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the cost of clean-up is likely to exceed $2.6 billion for just the lower eight miles of the Lower Passaic River, and projects that the cleanup process will take roughly 12 years.

Other experts estimate that EPA’s proposed process could take up to 25 years, because of the complexity of the site and the density of transportation infrastructure of northern New Jersey, which will be heavily disrupted by the clean-up.

PSU’s Jay and Talke, specialists in estuary systems science, estuarine physics, and retrospective modeling, will lead field work to collect data about important system properties including tides, currents, and sediment concentrations.

Collaborating with colleagues at the University of Illinois, this work will investigate which remediation strategies are likely to be the most successful given the circulation, sediment dynamics, and contaminant transport factors of the Lower Passaic River and Newark Bay.