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NJIT engineer shares EPA award for advancing a $1.7 billion cleanup of the Passaic River

New Jersey Institute of Technology

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently bestowed its annual "Citizen Excellence in Community Involvement Award" on a community advisory group formed to raise awareness and solicit public input into the agency's proposed $1.7 billion Superfund cleanup of the Passaic River. The group includes Jay Meegoda, an NJIT professor of civil and environmental engineering who helped air and explain some of the complex technical elements of the remediation plan.

The award, which recognizes a "significant contribution" to a Superfund cleanup, went to the Passaic River Community Advisory Group this year for its "excellence in engaging communities surrounding the Passaic River on the EPA's proposal to clean up contaminated sediment in the lower Passaic River." Through its monthly meetings, the group is also credited with "encouraging more than 350 local Newark residents to provide feedback."

"This is a Superfund site in NJIT's backyard that affects so many communities around us," said Meegoda, an authority on waste disposal who organized and participated in an all-day public forum at NJIT last year that brought together veteran environmental cleanup experts to answer questions about the EPA's plan.

"It's important for members of the affected community to look at the proposal carefully, because there are technical aspects of the plan that lay audiences might not fully appreciate," he noted at the time. The invited panelists included representatives from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Passaic River Coalition, among others.

The sediment in the Passaic is contaminated with dioxin, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals, pesticides and other industrial pollutants deposited by manufacturers along the river over the past century. The EPA notes that a major source of dioxin in the river is pollution from the Diamond Alkali facility in Newark, which produced Agent Orange and pesticides during the 1960s. The contamination is well above accepted levels and poses a significant risk to people who eat fish from the river and to wildlife, the agency has said.

The EPA plans to dredge toxic sediment from an eight-mile stretch of the lower Passaic, removing about 4.3 million cubic yards for disposal offsite and capping sections of the riverbed. The cleanup is one of the largest in the agency's history.

The agency announced its remediation proposal last April after seven years of study. It was developed in consultation with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and with outreach to representatives of the communities along the river. A public comment period of several months followed the plan's release.

In relating some of the complexities of the cleanup, Meegoda pointed out that there are costs and benefits to each of the remediation strategies the agency considered, including the two principal ones - disposing the material offsite or depositing it into what are called Confined Aquatic Disposal (CAD) cells in Newark Bay itself.

"Environmental groups are opposed to CAD cells, but they are not all aware that under the off-site disposal plan, the dredged material would be processed in a large facility within the affected communities to remove water and to solidify sediments for rail transport," he noted, adding that the EPA is drafting a response to the comments it received and is expected to release a modified plan early next year.

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About NJIT

One of the nation's leading public technological universities, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) is a top-tier research university that prepares students to become leaders in the technology-dependent economy of the 21st century. NJIT's multidisciplinary curriculum and computing-intensive approach to education provide technological proficiency, business acumen and leadership skills. With an enrollment of more than 10,000 graduate and undergraduate students, NJIT offers small-campus intimacy with the resources of a major public research university. NJIT is a global leader in such fields as solar research, nanotechnology, resilient design, tissue engineering and cyber-security, in addition to others. NJIT ranks fifth among U.S. polytechnic universities in research expenditures, topping $110 million, and is among the top 1 percent of public colleges and universities in return on educational investment, according to Payscale.com.

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