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Eating any seafood from the Passaic River is risky. The New Jersey waterway is heavily polluted by the factories that once dotted it, including a plant that made Agent Orange. But there are people who rely on fish from the river. Sarah Gonzales of member station WNYC reports that some of the companies responsible for the pollution have come up with their own approach to protect those residents.
SARAH GONZALES, BYLINE: Eating anything from the lower Passaic River can cause cancer, liver damage, birth defects and reproductive issues, but Oswaldo Avad does it all the time. Standing on the bank where the Passaic meets the Newark Bay, he's reeling in a small bluefish and part of a grocery bag.
OSWALDO AVAD: (Laughter) One piece plastic and one fish.
GONZALES: One piece of plastic and one fish.
GONZALES: He already has a bucket full.
AVAD: Yes, five.
GONZALES: Are you going to eat it?
AVAD: Yeah. It's good.
GONZALES: Avad loves fishing. He's from Ecuador, and he switches between English and Spanish when we talk because he says his English is only good after a few drinks.
GONZALES: Children pregnant women, women who might one day want to be pregnant - they're not supposed to eat any fish from most of the waters in New Jersey. Men are told it's safe to eat a tiny bit - like, one catfish per year. Avad eats way more than that.
AVAD: (Speaking Spanish).
GONZALES: Garlic, fry it...
AVAD: (Speaking Spanish).
GONZALES: (Speaking Spanish), catfish soup. And you don't get scared?
GONZALES: The Passaic River is one of the most contaminated bodies of water in the country. More than a hundred companies are potentially responsible for dumping toxic waste in it for decades before that was outlawed. The EPA, the Environment Protection Agency, wants the polluters to clean it up. In the meantime, some have formed a group. They call themselves the Cooperating Parties. And in an effort to reduce the health risks to residents who eat from the river, they're voluntarily funding a fish exchange program.
Three hundred tilapia are being raised in a greenhouse in Newark. Amy Rowe, who runs the fish farm for the polluters, says residents can bring in their contaminated catch.
AMY ROWE: Eels, crabs, carp, whitefish.
GONZALES: And swap it for clean, healthy tilapia, pound for pound. But her tilapia aren't big enough to swap.
ROWE: So we actually bought tilapia fillets from Cosco - yeah (laughter).
GONZALES: The polluters have spent more than a million dollars funding the fish exchange and greenhouse and have prevented just 170 contaminated fish from being eaten since June. And all the fish they've collected are now sitting in a freezer in Newark.
ROWE: So these are eels. This looks like perch.
GONZALES: And Amy Rowe isn't sure how to dispose of them. Legally, she could just throw them in the trash, but environmental justice advocates like Molly Greenberg with the Ironbound Community Corporation warned contaminated fish better not end up in their incinerator.
MOLLY GREENBERG: You breathe in what comes out of the smokestack. If it's toxic when you eat it, it's toxic when you breathe it.
GONZALES: The EPA wants the polluters to pay for a $1.7 billion cleanup of the Passaic. Both the polluters and Walter Mugdon with the EPA agree the fish swap is not an alternative.
WALTER MUGDON: It's certainly no substitute for cleaning up the river and getting the fish to be clean in the first place.
GONZALES: Jonathan Jaffe, a spokesperson for the Cooperating Parties, the polluters, declined a recorded interview but said in an email that they want to fund a smaller, targeted cleanup. He said the EPA's proposal is, quote, "destined for years of conflict and litigation." For NPR News, I'm Sarah Gonzales in New York.
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