In what is being described as a landmark agreement, the state Department of Environmental Protection has arranged for the opening of a 10-mile stretch of the Raritan River for fish spawning as compensation to the public for harm to natural resources caused by past pollution at a refinery and three polymer plants that were operated by or affiliated with the El Paso Corp.
The removal of the dams, financed and carried out by El Paso, will open the middle and upper Raritan to fish migrations for the first time in more than a century and, at the same time, expand recreational opportunities along the river.
DEP Commissioner Bob Martin announced the agreement Tuesday.
"This unique and unprecedented settlement will make valuable habitat in the Raritan River available for fish spawning while improving overall environmental conditions in the river system," Martin said. "In addition, dam removal will make it easier for kayakers, canoeists, and other lovers of the outdoors to enjoy a river system that has been undergoing a steady and impressive ecological comeback over the years."
The settlement resolves Natural Resource Damage claims by the DEP against Houston-based El Paso Corp. that stem from contamination at EPEC Polymers Inc in Flemington; Nuodex Inc. in Woodbridge; EPEC Polymers Inc. in Burlington City, and the Eagle Point Refinery in West Deptford. Investigations or cleanups are under way at those sites.
The settlement marks a first step in what the DEP hopes will become an even broader effort to enhance fish passage or remove additional dams in the Raritan and its tributaries, including the Millstone River.
"This portion of the river was once an important spawning area for fish migrating from Raritan Bay," Amy Cradic, assistant commissioner for Natural and Historic Resources, said. "This agreement is a major win for the environment by reopening these spawning areas and helping to restore balance to the estuary."
Dam removal will open up 10 miles of migratory fish habitat along a stretch of the Raritan that twists through a highly diverse residential, commercial and agricultural portion of Somerset County that includes Bridgewater, Bound Brook, Somerville and Manville. It will also open up some 17 miles of tributaries to spawning. None of the dams were built for flood control.
The dams to be removed are:
- Calco Dam, located at river mile 20.9 and built by the Calco Chemical Co. in 1938 to disperse chemicals from its facility. The dam is essentially a large concrete pipe spanning the river that today carries and disperses wastewater into the river for Somerset Raritan Valley Sewerage Authority. The authority has constructed a new outfall that will be operational shortly.
- The Nevius Street Dam, located at river mile 27 and constructed of rocks and mortar in 1901 for aesthetic purposes and later retrofitted to provide water to ponds on the Duke estate. The DEP and El Paso are working on a plan to ensure the river continues to feed water to these ponds after the dam is removed.
- The Robert Street Dam, a 6.5-foot-high sheet piling and concrete dam located at river mile 27.9 and constructed prior to 1930 for purposes that are not known today.
The Island Farm wier, a dam located between the Calco and Nevius dams and constructed in the 1990s for the Elizabethtown Water Co. and the New Jersey Water Supply Authority, is not affected by the agreement with El Paso. A large fish ladder in operation at this dam is routinely monitored by the DEP's Division of Fish and Wildlife.
The fish to benefit most from the removal of the dams are American shad, American eel, herring, and striped bass. Each of these species once spawned in prodigious numbers in the gravelly shallows of the upper Raritan.
Striped bass and shad are important recreational species. Herring and eel are important food sources for other species in the ocean and estuaries, including game species such as striped bass, weakfish and bluefish.
Better water flow in the river will also improve flushing of sediments, reduce nutrient loadings and improve conditions for tiny aquatic organisms that are critical to the food web in any river system, Cradic said.
El Paso approached the DEP several years ago to cooperatively resolve its Natural Resource Damage liability. Resource damage claims seek to restore natural resources such as wetlands or groundwater and compensate the public for the amount of time the resources were harmed by pollution.
The DEP uses funds secured from damage settlements toward ecological restoration projects, typically in the same watershed or general area where resource damages occur.
The Flemington and Woodbridge polymer facilities are located in the Raritan's watershed. The Eagle Point refinery, which El Paso once owned, and the Burlington City polymer facility are located in the Delaware River watershed. El Paso has agreed to provide the DEP $156,655 for a migratory fish study for the Delaware watershed.
The DEP has been working closely with stakeholders, including dam owners, environmental groups, property owners, local utilities, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to make the Raritan River project a reality.
The DEP will continue working with El Paso as the company designs and implements the project. The company has already completed significant engineering studies and is expected to soon file for dam safety, land use and other DEP permits. The company is expected to launch the project this summer with the removal of the Calco Dam.
— TOM HESTER SR., NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM