Sediment: “Dirty Mud Can be a Beautiful Thing”

Text and Photos by K. Cecchini

Eric A. Stern, public serviceman, professor, innovator and entrepreneur, “play(s) with bad, dirty mud” for a living. He tells you this and half expects you to nod your head and move on, but his excitement for it gives insight into how interesting sediment work can be and, as the conversation goes on, you start to agree that “dirty mud can be a beautiful thing.”

“dirty mud can be a beautiful thing.”

It’s the kind of thing that may surprisingly hold your attention at a cocktail party.

Stern enjoyed a 24 year career in public service with the US Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in dredged material management- ” the very elegant things in life” before re-launching the 2nd part of his career in the private sector having been with Environment Research Management, Inc. and the Battelle Memorial Institute. Currently, in addition to being a research associate professor at Montclair State University (MSU), he is working with CDM Smith, Inc. and has also started his own firm, Environmental Adaptive Strategies, LLC. Furthermore, he has been involved with projects in other nations and has been a member of the European Union Sediment Research Network since 2000.

Issues with sediment

The issue is two-fold; the “black, mayonnaise mud” needs to be removed to create depth for ships in major ports and much of it is contaminated from industry.

For example, New York/New Jersey Harbor is 19′ deep. This is hardly enough space to accommodate the large vessels that navigate the port for such purposes as commerce and defense. In order to allow for the delivery of the computer you are reading this on, my Tri-state friends, the USACE had to create and maintain a highway of 245 miles worth of navigable waterways. Tons of sediment is removed regularly as these underwater highways are naturally and continuously refilled.

To complicate things, but certainly not a surprise, the sediment in the Port of New York/New Jersey is contaminated with sewer overflow and the glories of the Industrial Revolution such as dioxin, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (e.g. oil, grease) and metals.

So, by the way, what does one do with tons of contaminated sediment? It’s a little bit of this and a whole lot of NIMBY (‘Not in my backyard’) in the Mid-Atlantic. Locals here love to do the “bloody right thing” and recycle, but despite having the real estate available for regional processing facilities, we prefer to send everything from our household wastes to our contaminated sediments clear across the country.

It ain’t cheap.

The cost of putting tons of sediment on trains out to Utah, for instance, is incredible. When you look at the entire life cycle analysis with greenhouse gases, fuel, risk management of spills, etc., the costs are fantastical.

Yes, we clean up Superfund sites to improve our resources here at the risk of the clean air there.

“Are you OK with this?”

It’s Eco-psychology. Stern will tell you, “If you’re ok with these clean-ups going for decades and the cost of sending the material across the US and you’re ok with this, then please say you’re ok with this so we can move on.”

If you’re not ok with this, Stern has insight on some of the solutions.

But brace yourself; he won’t offer a quick fix, “this work is not for the weak or squeamish.”

Repurposing Sediment: “I can’t see how anybody can’t get excited about that.”

In the mid-1990’s, Stern was program manager of a congressionally funded investigation to transform the contaminated sediment into a resource and has been involved from conception to commercialization of these beneficial use products.

We, the people, should be excited about it because it’s financially savvy for taxpayers, the products can be renewed for urban revitalization and it will create direct and supply chain jobs. Corporations should be excited since it reduces the liability of destroying the contaminants and sending them to landfills.

After putting the mayonnaise through the laundry – complex big oven decontamination processes that vary by product-the technology yields 3 beneficial use applications:

1-Construction grade cement:

The thermochemical rotary kiln process decontaminates and dewaters the sediment at 2400°F and it falls by gravity out of the kiln like molten lava. When solidified, it’s called Eco-melt; this glass is then pulverized to be a 30-40% replacement for standard Portland Cement.

Repurposed construction grade cement demo at Montclair State University
Repurposed sediment as construction grade cement at Montclair State University (Mallory Hall)

2-Light-weight aggregate

3- Manufactured soil:

Why make dirt?

We have 40 or so years of topsoil left in the world. Our planet is thin-skinned when it comes to the nutritious dirt -it’s around 3-feet deep- that gives rise to most our food.

It takes hundreds of years to replace an inch or two.

Humans employ topsoil -and waste it- so much faster. Construction, drought, minimal erosion control and agriculture practices all contribute to the depletion. In addition, it is literally thrown away as cover for landfills.

To create soil replacement, the laundered sediment is blended with clay, sand, lime and compost (to get all those nutritious microbes in the mix-yum!).

Repurposed sediment as manufactured soil w. native plants at Montclair State University
Repurposed sediment as manufactured soil w. native plants at Montclair State University (Mallory Hall)

Superfund vs. EPA Legacy Act

The landscaping and walkway at Mallory Hall was created with sediment from the Passaic River Superfund Site (also in North Jersey). Stern has been involved in the cleanup on the Passaic and the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn (NYC) since 1986 and 1990, respectively.

Dedicated? Yes. Stern figures he will be working on it for life and quips that he’ll make a statue of himself out of Eco-melt to memorialize his time.

Complicated? For sure. He specializes in urban sediment management because city sites are entangled by a number of factors that include politics, social and economic issues. When folks live near a contaminated waterway, it’s understandably an emotional issue, but the ultimate goal is to reincorporate the waterway’s value to the community, “instead of benches turned away from the water, benches (can be) turning towards the water; that’s a big deal”. Walk along the water in Chicago today and you an see the dream become a reality.

In fact Stern hails the successful program around the Great Lakes, the EPA Legacy Act, as one of the best sediment programs on the globe. The hallmark of the Legacy Act is that the government does not label the companies who contributed contaminates to the lakes as “polluters” but as partners with the government in a cost share plan. It also stresses economic development and the restoration of animal habitats.

Stern understands why people might trump the Superfund method over the Legacy Act method because Superfunds sticks the entire bill to the companies. He doesn’t excuse the pollution but looks through the lens of history; he argues that many of these deeds were committed long before we understood their effects and therefore had regulation. It took humans a long time to draw a connection between the contamination and it’s ecological effects, much like, as Stern points out, germ theory.

Hindsight is 20/20, eh?

Also, cost shares are more pragmatic; large magnitude cleanups cost millions or billions of dollars “…and once you start talking billions of dollars, this becomes Monopoly money. Sometimes it makes more sense (for a company) to litigate for 20 years…” rather than fork over the Monopoly money.


Today Stern is using his 30 years of international experience with sediment and dredged material management in the 3 aforementioned places; teaching at MSU, CDM Smith and Environmental Adaptive Strategies, LLC.

Stern adopted his father’s (a surgical illustrator) drawing as the logo for Environmental Adaptive Strategies, LLC; the organic, connectivity of its concentric circles are representative of adaptive management. The world is not linear and solutions need to be flexible; “the philosophical construct needed to develop solutions for today’s complex multi-media environmental challenges integrates the arts of creativity, technology innovation, sustainability, economics, and negotiation to achieve results that realistically balance stakeholder goals”. Stern focuses on the areas of:

Urban / Watershed Regional Sediment Management
Sediment Market Evaluation and Development
Integrated Contaminated Sediment Remediation
Dredged Material and Contaminated Sediment Management Environmental Assessments
Adaptive Waste Management Strategies
Innovative Sediment Decontamination Technology Development
Beneficial Use of Sediments
Bench / Pilot / Full-scale Sediment Treatment Demonstrations
Regional Processing Facilities
Stakeholder and Public Outreach Consultation
Sediment Program Peer Reviews

For more information on Eric A. Stern and his work, you can find him on Linked-In.

Native plant in manufactured soil repurposed from Passic River Superfund Site sediment
Native plant in manufactured soil repurposed from Passic River Superfund Site sediment
Plan of repurposed soil demo with list of native plants used.
Plan of repurposed sediment demo at Montclair State University with list of native plants used.

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