Superfund gets to work on risky NY-area waterways

August 14, 2012 10:00AM

The federal Superfund program is preparing to take on its biggest challenges in its three decades of existence: cleaning urban waterways. Most of these sites are in New York and New Jersey, the states with the most Superfund-eligible sites, and include the Passaic River in New Jersey, the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, Newton Creek on the Brooklyn-Queens border and the final section of the Hudson River.

The New York Times revisited the program in a lengthy profile, noting that it has been controversial since its founding amid the Reagan administration in 1981 and is still panned on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce website as being “slow, ineffective [and] very expensive.”

Those critiques seemed appropriate in the 1990s, when, in one of the earliest Superfund projects, the Environmental Protection Agency tried to remove industrial wastes from about 15 acres across two channels off San Francisco Bay — only to stir up the waste and pollute fish to the point that they are still deemed unsafe to eat.

Water cleanup technology has improved of late, and the $561 million cleansing of the of the Hudson River has been more successful than the San Francisco project was, although it too has pushed additional pollutants downstream, albeit temporarily.

“Dredging has advanced a lot, but it’s still not an exact science,” said Raymond Besso, who’s heading the Passaic River cleanup. [NYT] — Adam Fusfeld