HACKENSACK, N.J. -- Marine scientist Mark Reiss sat expectantly by his laptop as a giant winch rattled and groaned to haul 800 pounds of photo equipment from the ocean floor onto the deck of a research ship. As the water coursed off the equipment's frame, Reiss's team of scientists attached cables to the camera and downloaded images onto Reiss' computer. The pictures were amazingly sharp, but they were disappointing.
Once again, there were no worms.
Maybe at the next location.
Reiss and his Environmental Protection Agency research team recently spent two days aboard the EPA vessel The Bold taking photos of the sea floor about five miles off Sandy Hook. They were trying to pinpoint areas with concentrations of sea worms.
They need to find and analyze the tissue of these worms to see if they have absorbed contaminants buried beneath a 3-foot layer of sediment capping the Mud Dump, an old dumping ground in the Atlantic Ocean.
"The worms interact directly with the sediment and would be exposed to any contamination that would be seeping up through the new cap," Reiss said. "And they're important prey for fish such as striped bass, fluke, bluefish and sea bass that are targets of commercial and recreational fishermen. There's also a significant lobster fishery here."
The Mud Dump, 16 square miles and in 75 feet of water, was used for decades as a dumping ground for garbage, harbor dredge, city refuse and material dug from cellars. It became polluted with PCBs, dioxins, heavy metals and other contaminants.
The dump has been capped with clean material dug up as part of an ongoing project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deepen the channels of Newark Bay and New York Harbor. The worm tissue will confirm whether the material used to cap the dump is preventing the contamination from getting up into the food chain.
But before they can collect the worms, the EPA scientists need to find them. Last August a similar photo study was conducted of the Mud Dump sediment cap, and the images showed vast populations of small sea worms, or the tubes that some species, such as Asabellides oculata, live in.
This time, the scientists found few worms, most likely because of the boom and bust cycle of these species. "Soon the water temperature will be warming up, and by August you'll see a big change in what goes on out there in terms of sea life," said Stephen Knowles, a geologist and ocean placement program manager at the Army Corps of Engineers.
But the EPA's only large oceangoing research vessel is in demand all year from the Gulf of Mexico to Maine's coast, and slots of time onboard for researchers like Reiss are limited and valuable. With fewer worms beneath the ocean now, it will be harder to collect enough worm tissue to survey as much of the cap sediment as they would like. Reiss said a backup plan could be to take samples of the sediment, mix worms into the samples in a lab, wait several weeks, then test the worm tissue for contaminants.
The Mud Dump area off Sandy Hook had served as a dumping ground since the 1800s. Over the decades, contaminated sediment dredged from the heavily polluted Newark Bay, New York Harbor, the Passaic River and the Hackensack was dumped at the site. The toxic material spread on the sea floor.
"There was not a lot of government oversight back then," Reiss said, "and stuff made it out to the site that wouldn't be allowed today."
Environmental groups grew concerned about the dumping. "It was a chemical cocktail," said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, based in Highlands in Monmouth County.
The EPA designated the area as the Historic Area Remediation Site in 1997 and prohibited dumping there. They began efforts to cap the site with clean dredged material.
The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers are solving two problems at once, since there was also a need to dispose of the millions of cubic yards of material being dredged from the Kill Van Kull, Newark Bay and other federal navigation channels that make up the Port of New York and New Jersey. Maintenance dredging alone generates up to 2 million cubic yards of sedimentary material a year.
Some of the dredged material goes to special landfills that can handle toxic waste. But the projects to deepen channels are digging so far down that they bring up glacial till -- ancient, cleaner material -- and officials said that is what is being used to cap the Mud Dump area east of Sandy Hook.
A few earlier tests of sediment found no contamination leaking up through the cap. The worms that Reiss and his team are looking for will help confirm the cap is working.
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