Federal officials have approved a pilot project to determine whether bacteria can eliminate cancer-causing dioxin and other pollutants in the Passaic River.
Scientists plan to take samples from the river this spring and test their method in a laboratory. If the results are promising, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may allow them to conduct tests in the river itself.
Federal officials said the testing will not affect their plans for a $1.7 billion cleanup involving dredging part of the river. "In my mind this is a separate and distinct endeavor," said Ray Basso, the EPA project manager for the Passaic River. "We think this has promise, but we don't see it as a magic bullet."
The scientists work for two of the companies responsible for paying for the dredging, which would be one of the most expensive cleanups in U.S. history.
More than a century of industrialization along the Passaic has left dioxin, PCBs, mercury and other pollutants throughout 17 miles of the river, from Newark Bay to the Dundee Dam in Garfield.
The EPA unveiled a plan in April for "bank-to-bank" dredging of the river's lower eight miles, which contain the greatest concentration of industrial pollution. About 4.3 million cubic yards of sediment — enough to fill MetLife Stadium twice — would be scooped out. A cap would be placed over the remaining pollution.
The agency is not expected to finalize the plan until the end of the year.
Many of the 100 companies that polluted the river or inherited the liability of past polluters have been trying to persuade the EPA to choose a cheaper plan.
The bacteria test is being funded by Maxus Energy Corp. of Texas and Tierra Solutions Inc. of East Brunswick. The two companies inherited the liability of the former Diamond Alkali plant in Newark, where workers dumped dioxin into the river while making Agent Orange, the cancer-causing defoliant, during the Vietnam War.
Trying a technique called bioremediation, scientists will introduce carbon into the contaminated sediment as a food source, to increase the number of microbes. The microbes in turn could eat the pollutants, digest them and excrete harmless material.