Ocean Landfill: Closed Today Marks The End Of An Ear. The Waters Off Thje New Jersey Coast Are Now 0ff-limits To The Dumping Of Garbage, Sewage, Sludge Or Any Other Refuse.

Posted: September 01, 1997

It was late in the afternoon when the tug Katherine pushed a mud-laden barge out of Newark Bay and into the Atlantic - headed for a landmark moment.

The barge was piled with dredge material, enough to fill 400 six-wheel dump trucks. It took four hours to get to the spot six miles offshore. And then, at 9:21 p.m., the bottom of the barge split open and 4,000 cubic yards of history-making muck slid out in a thick cloud and sank to the bottom.

That mud was the last contaminated sediment to be deposited legally off the coast of New Jersey. It marked the end of an era.

Although the final drop was Aug. 10, today marks the official closure of the last remaining ocean-dumping site off New Jersey.

After more than a century of shipping out all manner of refuse, from garbage to acid waste to sewage sludge to construction debris; after more than 13 years of campaigns and court battles, today the only substance that can be legally dumped off Jersey's shores - and that for a limited time only - is clean dredge material.

That and, with the proper permits, routine fish waste and human remains being buried at sea.

Environmentalists and others planned to meet at Sandy Hook yesterday to celebrate with fireworks and festivities until midnight, when they would toast the first moments of ``a dump-site-free ocean.''

Never mind that dump sites are as close as Long Island Sound. For all intents and purposes, the ocean off New Jersey is closed.

``That barbaric dump-and-dash technology of old is over,'' Cindy Zipf said in a recent interview. Head of the environmental group Clean Ocean Action, she started a campaign against ocean dumping as a fresh-out-of-college intern more than a decade ago.

``It surely is a milestone,'' said Peter Shugert, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, which now is searching for new sites to put the 5 million to 7 million cubic yards of sediment that are dredged each year to keep New York-area commercial ports navigable. One possibility is fill for abandoned coal mines in Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, the 2.2-square-mile swatch of continental shelf that is the former mud dump site - an area of contaminated muck roughly the size of a small shore town - is the first ocean dump site in the nation to be remediated.

Barges will now transport clean fill to the area, dumping it on top to keep contaminants from working through the food chain and, just possibly, becoming concentrated in the fish caught off the coast and consumed all over the region.

``This is significant because we are taking responsibility for the waste we generate,'' said Zipf. ``This is an extraordinary victory for the ocean.''

* The crook of ocean along northern New Jersey and western Long Island is known as the New York Bight Apex. It's been used as a watery dump since the 1800s.

``It was just convenient,'' said Bob Perciasepe, assistant administrator for water at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington. ``There were no known consequences.''

Municipal garbage was dumped there until 1934. Sewage sludge was dumped in an area just 12 miles offshore for more than 60 years, until 1987. A nearby acid-waste site got industrial byproducts from 1948 until 1988. Until a few years ago, barges took creosote-soaked pilings to another site and burned them. Zipf, who lives in Neptune, has pictures of it on the wall of her office in Sandy Hook - ``it looked primeval, this huge bonfire just pouring black smoke.'' After the pilings were burned, the ashes were dumped overboard.

The ``cellar-dirt'' site was a spot to discard construction and excavation debris.

At two sites, 106 miles offshore, barges dumped acids and other industrial wastes, plus more sewage sludge.

The ocean was big. It could absorb anything, people thought.

Gradually, however, environmentalists began to view the ocean as a finite, overburdened resource, one with no boundaries. Fish feeding at, say, an acid dump site could be contaminated, then caught and consumed anywhere.

In the early 1980s, Zipf had recently received a degree in marine policy from the University of Rhode Island and was an intern with the American Littoral Society, a nonprofit coastal organization in Sandy Hook.

In 1984, a group of environmental organizations that had been addressing the problem collectively formed a separate group, Clean Ocean Action, which Zipf operated in a two-bedroom apartment over a hardware store in Sea Bright.

Back then, there were seven ocean dump sites in the bight and another - for incinerated toxic waste - proposed for 140 miles off Cape May.

``We were the ocean-dumping capital,'' Zipf contended. ``No one was doing the kind of dumping we were.''

Initially, Zipf had difficulty getting people to take her seriously.

Then came the summer of 1987. Swaths of garbage - including syringes and other medical waste - washed up on New Jersey beaches.

The state's tourism industry lost an estimated $3 billion. ``The economic value of a clean environment was clearly unveiled,'' Zipf said. With it came clout. ``We weren't just fish-huggers anymore.''

Partly in response, Congress passed legislation in 1988 that would ban the dumping of sewage sludge after 1991. It applied to New Jersey alone, given that it had the last remaining sludge-dumping site off the U.S. coast.

Over the years, each of the sites off New Jersey closed, and the proposed toxic-waste site fell through. All that remained was the mud dump site - the place where all the dredge material from New York's harbors wound up.

Zipf thought that the material wasn't being tested sufficiently and that toxins from it were making their way into the food chain.

``It was full of nasties, a toxic legacy of 100 years,'' she said.

In 1993, cancer-causing dioxin was added to the list of contaminants they tested for, and it showed up in the sediment. But rather than prohibiting the material from being dumped, authorities proposed weakening ocean-dumping regulations to allow it, Zipf said.

Clean Ocean Action sued, and what followed were years of hearings and rulings. ``We lost, and then we won; we lost, we won,'' Zipf said.

At a public hearing, she said, ``we turned out hundreds of divers and fishermen'' who made dire predictions of winding up with a catch-and-release ocean if dumping continued. ``We thought this would affect everyone's coast,'' Zipf said. ``We raised some hell.''

Then, in 1996, Vice President Gore stepped in. ``It was the two E's,'' said Perciasepe: ``The economy and the ecology. The port is a national port.''

If left alone, the port of New York would return to its natural depth of 18 feet. To keep the channels open for shipping, enough sediment to fill three World Trade Center towers must be dredged every year.

If the port couldn't be dredged - or if disposing of the dredge material became too expensive - the economy would be affected.

With Gore's help, all parties agreed that the mud dump site would close Sept. 1. It would be redesignated as a remediation area and covered with dredged material that has been tested and found to be clean.

``It's basically putting a big gigantic bandage over the wound,'' Zipf said disparagingly. ``But that's all the technology we have right now.''

A few near-shore sites still may accept clean sand dredged from inlets, but technically those are not ocean sites and are not considered an environmental problem. Plus, most of the dredged sand is used for beach replenishment.

The big thing, Zipf said, is that ``those horrible contaminated materials from the bowels of the harbor are no longer going to be spread into the ocean to contaminate the food chain.''

* But what about the dredge material?

For now, some of the contaminated material is being put into a pit in Newark Bay. The cost, Shugert pointed out, is $40 to $50 per cubic yard of dredge material, compared with $3 to $5 a cubic yard to dump it in the ocean. ``This is a tough pill for the port to swallow,'' he said.

Developers are trucking away other material and using it as fill in a mall parking lot in Elizabeth, N.J. There's a proposal to use more for a golf course foundation.

Bill Muszynski, deputy regional administrator for the EPA in New York, envisions a day when the port might be able to sell the stuff, especially if ``we can get rid of the moniker that it's waste.'' It could become covers for landfills and used in construction.

And, just maybe, it can solve Pennsylvania's mine problem.

The commonwealth has about 250,000 acres of mine land that was abandoned before the enactment of laws requiring coal operators to clean up the sites. These mines are causing sinkholes, undermining foundations, and leaking acid water. The price for cleaning them up is an estimated $15 million, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Some 500,000 cubic yards of dredge material - enough to cover a 15-acre test plot - has been targeted for use in a mine reclamation laboratory in Clearfield County. The mud will be tested while still on the river bottom and, if it meets standards, dredged and sent to Pennsylvania.

There, it will be mixed with fly ash grout, lime and other materials to form a cement-like material that can be poured into shafts or inserted into seams. Then it can be topped with soil and seeded.

William Pounds, with the Bureau of Land Recycling and Waste Management, said officials were ``certainly hopeful'' that New York's harbor mud would work out.

One of the many questions is whether it's clean enough, but officials are hopeful about this, too. They point out that concerns over ocean dumping were because the contaminants could bio-accumulate in the aquatic life.

``The threat it imposes is through the food chain - worms to fish to bigger fish to people,'' said Mary Mears, spokeswoman for the EPA's regional office in New York. ``But if you had this stuff in your backyard, you would be fine.''

Even as they look for other disposal options, the Army Corps, EPA officials and environmentalists want to ensure that as little pollution as possible enters the sediment that comes from far upland, washing into creeks and streams, then the rivers, then the harbor, where it settles to the bottom and clogs the shipping channels.

``We can't be satisfied by closing the mud dump site,'' Shugert said. ``We have to identify where the pollution is coming from and go after it. Vigorously. Otherwise, our children and our children's children will still be dealing with this problem.''

``The end should not be Sept. 1,'' Shugert said. ``The end should be when we stop the pollution from getting in.''

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