Hidden beneath the Passaic River and Newark Bay near New York City is a notorious toxic dump that EPA believes was polluted by more than 100 companies.
One of those polluters is bankrolling a yearslong study to implement the cleanup plan approved by the Obama EPA for the so-called Diamond Alkali Superfund site.
But two corporations with ties to acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler are strongly disputing their responsibilities for the nearly $1.4 billion effort, according to financial reports and lobbying disclosures.
Thanks to new powers granted to EPA chiefs by ex-Administrator Scott Pruitt, Superfund experts say Wheeler is now in a strong position to pressure polluters fighting about their shares of the cleanup costs to go easy on his former clients — meat-processing company Darling Ingredients Inc. and chemical maker Celanese Corp. Or he could potentially cut the overall price tag of the massive cleanup, which could benefit all of the companies' bottom lines but lessen protections for the millions of people who live around the Diamond Alkali site.
"If Andrew Wheeler represented clients who are expected to pick up part of the bill of the Passaic River cleanup, that's extremely problematic," said Judith Enck, who oversaw the Diamond Alkali site for seven years as the Obama administration's administrator of the EPA region that includes New York and New Jersey.
"Even if he is fair and objective, it's going to create an opportunity for the other companies that are on the hook for Passaic River pollution to question the EPA decisionmaking and slow down the process even further," she warned.
Any delay would leave more fish and crabs — as well as the animals and people who eat them — vulnerable to the dangers posed by dioxins, PCBs, DDT, mercury, lead and other harmful substances found in the poisoned waters.
Efforts to turn around the Diamond Alkali site have been protracted, even for a program infamous for its drawn-out cleanups.