Problem: The Raritan River is the longest river solely in New Jersey. Unfortunately, it is also the 14th-most polluted river in the United States, disproportionately impacted by many of the state’s 25,000 known contaminated sites. Centuries of industry in this “Chemical Belt” of central New Jersey left a legacy of toxic waste sites contaminated by PCBs, dioxins, arsenic, radiologicals, heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, and volatile organic compounds.
These contaminated sites pose a major threat to the watershed’s ecological health, as well as the health and quality of life of nearby residents by compromising safe public use by commercial fishing, crabbing, recreation, and even as drinking water. Toxic pollution would be a threat anywhere, but it is particularly alarming in one of the most densely populated areas in the nation.
Solution: A watchdog looking out for Central New Jersey families. Edison Wetlands Association (EWA), the leading environmental non-profit working to clean up New Jersey’s toxic sites, founded the Raritan River Project in 1995 to clean up the Raritan River. Without EWA’s Raritan River Project, many sites would go decades without any cleanup being done. Many of the worst toxic sites would still be unremediated and dangerous to the public.
With the leadership of groups like EWA, New Jersey’s longest river is a river in recovery. The Raritan’s ecological health has rebounded strongly over the past 20 years. With less industrial pollution, wildlife such as bald eagle, black bear, osprey, coyote, beaver, sea turtles and harbor seals are returning to the river. Fishermen, crabbers, boaters, and birders are returning to the Raritan. Yet the restoration of the Lower Raritan watershed remains a daunting challenge, as toxic sites continue to discharge contaminants.
The Result: There is one site that captures both the lengthy industrial legacy of this region--and the renaissance that is restoring the riverfront for wildlife habitat and new public access. That site is Edison Landfill, which has seen forest, meadowland, and wetlands reclaim its forever landfill use over the last 30 years. The missing ingredients were public access and passive recreation like hiking, birding, fishing, and wildlife viewing.
The Process: EWA’s successful first phase of the Raritan Landfill Walkway in Edison now stands as a national model “garbage-to-gardens” project. This story dramatically captures the essence of EWA's unique Brownfields to Greenfields work. EWA is transforming sites that have long harmed the environment and nearby families and recreational users, into positive resources that offer environmental restoration, safe passive recreation, and new public access to rare open space and nature. For the first time in a century, families can safely enjoy the Raritan along Edison’s eight miles of riverfront.
The Vision: EWA’s Robert Spiegel conceived the idea for a landfill walkway project along the 35-acre Edison Landfill in 2002. Edison Township broke ground on this project in fall 2009, and the riverfront trail opened in the spring of 2010 –featuring a footbridge, recycled plastic boardwalk, butterfly gardens, native tree plantings, benches, swallow nesting boxes, kiosks, and a gazebo.
In honor of the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, EWA, the Township of Edison, and WildNewJersey.tv hosted a ceremonial ribboncutting ceremony and tree planting to mark the formal opening of the Raritan Riverfront Walkway to the public. EWA Executive Director Robert Spiegel was joined by Edison Mayor Antonia Ricigliano, Raritan Riverkeeper, Edison Township Council persons, business leaders, and media in commemorating the walkway trail, constructed with the assistance of EWA and Conservation Resources, Inc. The group toured the trail to see the colorful background of tree swallows, bald eagles, waterfowl, cormorants, and a friendly harbor seal.
Phases II and III include cleanup of all remaining garbage along the riverfront, closure of the landfill, restoration of wetlands, extension of the walkway, and construction of a kayak and canoe launch.
Project Distinction: Allows families in this city of 100,000 plus residents to celebrate new public access to the longest river solely in New Jersey for the first time.
Funding Sources: EWA advocated successfully for the Township of Edison and Middlesex County to post for a $508,725 bond and reimbursement, and its advocacy led the NJDEP to allocate over $600,000 in Natural Resource Damages (NRD) to this project. The NRD funding itself came from the Hatco site settlement in Woodbridge, where EWA worked with NJDEP to force a $13.2 million cleanup of PCB lagoons. A prior state agreement required the funding to go through the nonprofit Conservation Resources Inc. (CRI), so EWA worked with NJDEP, CRI, Middlesex County and the Township to forge an agreement for the project to begin.
Contaminants present/ remediation technologies used: The Edison Landfill operated from 1958 to 1990. Municipal waste, construction debris, and industrial dry waste were deposited in the landfill, which was built over tidal marsh areas. The landfill proper covers 35 acres, with additional vegetation-covered fill extending to the river. Contaminants of concern include metals, PAHs, VOCs, and semi-VOCs. While EWA provided recommendations for the technical part of the clean up, it was not responsible for carrying out the remediation directly. Its role has been as a conceptual designer, advocate, and funding driver for this complex national model project to move forward.