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Region 2 NY/NJ Harbor Project Information

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Sediment Quality of the NY/NJ Harbor System

A number of studies have documented high concentrations of contaminants in sediments of the New York/New Jersey Harbor and Bight Apex complex. Based on these findings, U.S. EPA-Region 2 and the New York/New Jersey Harbor Estuary Program (HEP) identified the development of a sediment management and monitoring strategy as an integral part of the comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP) for the Harbor and Bight Apex. However, the existing data were insufficient for developing this strategy.

To provide the data needed to develop a management strategy, 168 sites in the Harbor and Bight Apex were sampled in the summers of 1993 and 1994, using a stratified random design. Fourteen sampling sites were allocated in each year to each of six sub-basins (Newark Bay, Lower Harbor, Upper Harbor, Jamaica Bay, western Long Island Sound and the Bight Apex). Surficial sediment contaminant concentrations, two sediment toxicity tests (Ampelisca adbita and Microtox), and benthic macrofaunal community structure were measured at each site.

Contamination was widespread, with all of the Harbor samples having at least one chemical exceeding an ER-L (Effects Range-Low) concentration, a threshold at which biological effects are possible, and 50% of the Harbor exceeding at least one ER-M (Effects Range-Median) concentration, a threshold at which biological effects are likely. A toxicological response was also observed for 45% of the Harbor. Newark Bay was the most contaminated sub-basin, with 92% of its area exceeding an ER-M concentration and 49% of its area showing a toxicological response. In contrast, only 7% of the area in the Bight Apex exceeded ER-M concentrations and toxicity was only observed at one Bight Apex location, which was located near an area of historical dredged material disposal.

Contamination was widespread among chemical classes. At least one pesticide, one metal and total PCBs were present at concentrations above ER-M for one-third of the Harbor area. Mercury and chlordane were the only individual chemicals for which more than 25% of the area in the Harbor exceeded an ER-M concentration. Fourteen individual chemicals had mean concentrations for the entire Harbor that exceeded their ER-L concentrations. Mercury was the only chemical for which the average concentration exceeded its ER-M value.

The condition of benthic communities was strongly associated with chemical contamination. At the 63% of the Harbor area where impacted benthic communities were observed, there also was a toxicological response and/or at least one chemical exceeding its ER-M concentration. In contrast, only 14% of the Harbor area without a toxicological response and without a chemical exceeding ER-M concentration had impacted benthic macroinvertebrates.

The sampling design and methods used in this study were compatible with those of EPA's Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program-Estuaries (EMAP-E), allowing unbiased comparison of conditions in the NY/NJ Harbor with those in the entire mid-Atlantic region. Based on comparisons with EMAP-E data collected from 1990 through 1993 from the Virginian Province (coastal area from Cape Cod to, and including, Chesapeake Bay), the NY/NJ Harbor was found to have higher average sediment concentrations for 58 of the 59 chemicals measured in this study. NY/NJ Harbor sediments are responsible for more than 90% of the spatial extent of exceedances of the total PCBs ER-M and 69% of the mercury ER-M exceedances in the Virginian Province, even though the Harbor constitutes only 4% of the area in the Province.

Sediment quality in the Harbor has undoubtedly improved due to actions taken as a result of recent environmental legislation and improved stewardship. Further major improvements cannot be expected immediately and will probably be more subtle than those that have occurred previously. The Harbor bottom will continue to integrate loadings of contaminants, organic materials and sediments from the watershed surrounding it and from other sources. The most obvious "next steps" are to measure how rapidly sediment quality and associated biological health improves under current watershed protection and pollution prevention activities. Some of these steps are included in the HEP CCMP, while others are being undertaken as a subsequent REMAP investigation.

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