New Jersey in Detox

Updated: July 27, 2022 at 03:27 PM

The view from above the Hackensack River in Secaucus, NJ. In June, oysters placed in the river to filter contaminants either died or were deformed. Flickr/Genista.

While the Garden State is sometimes dubbed the “armpit of America” in jest — a reference to the state’s legacy of industry and pollution — the deadly consequences of decades of illegal dumping and unhealthy manufacturing practices have prompted few chuckles.

New Jersey has more than 20,000 environmentally contaminated sites, reported the The Record in its new “Toxic Landscape” investigative series.

A particularly high concentration of these sites — the Department of Environmental protection reports 2,800 — are located in the densely populated Bergen and Passaic counties, where chemicals have seeped into groundwater and made entire neighborhoods unsafe, according to the report.

A Superior Court judge ruled on July 27 that Occidental Chemical Corp. was liable for the cleanup of all hazardous waste produced by the Diamond Shamrock Chemical plant. Between 1951 and 1969, Diamond Shamrock produced the herbicide Agent Orange, and dumped its toxic byproduct into the Passaic River.

Despite the state’s 40-year-old pledge to clean contaminated sites — many of which remain toxic decades after they were first deemed contaminated — the sites are still dangerous due to the high expense of funding their cleanup and the vast numbers of complex court cases required to sue the original polluters. In many cases, residential buildings are constructed on top of contaminated sites unbeknownst to buyers, according to The Record.

Click here to see an interactive map of the contaminated New Jersey sites, including detailed explanations of why they still exist.

Of Superfunds and bureaucratic kryptonite: New Jersey is home to more Superfund sites than any other state, reported The Record. The Superfund Program was created in 1980 in response to the environmental disaster at Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara, N.Y., where decades of illegal dumping posed immediate public health risks, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Residents in the area were experiencing a host of strange ailments as the result of toxic waste that had been buried under homes before they were built.

The Superfund Program gives the federal government power to force the parties responsible for highly contaminated sites to either clean the polluted area or repay the government for cleaning it. If the contaminating parties no longer exist — as is the case with many current sites long-abandoned by their industrial polluters — the sites are supposed to be cleaned through a special government fund.

So why has a Superfund site like Fair Lawn, N.J. — on the Superfund list since 1987 — still sit atop groundwater heavily polluted with chloroform?

Of the 112 New Jersey Superfund sites, only 29 have been fully cleaned, and critics charge that many of the “fully cleaned” sites still present dangers. The Record blames the EPA for:

  • Mistakes and questionable judgment calls in determining which sites are clean.
  • Slowing down the remediation process (removing pollutants) after the visible or most threatening contaminating elements have been cleaned. This means that waste trapped underground or in the water often remains, which can lead to the expansion of the contaminated area.
  • Using questionable remediation practices, such as a plan to encase toxic waste, rather than extracting the pollutants.

Documenting Ramapough’s illegal dumping case against Ford: On Monday, HBO premiered Mann v. Ford,” a documentary covering the 647-plantiff case by Ringwood, N.J.’s,  Ramapough American Indian community against Ford Motor Co. for illegally dumping toxic paint on their land.

The film covers the first case in which an area taken off the Superfund list was later put back on.

Although the case ended in a $12.5 million settlement — leaving about $4,000-35,000 per plaintiff — and the cleanup continues, residents still die from complications related to the contamination, according to The Record.

Superfunds not super-funded. Another major issue, reported the Star-Ledger, is that the Superfund list — already lacking the financial resources to deal with the contaminated sites — is ever-growing. The competition for funds could become considerably more intense if the federal government decides to add “vapor intrusion” — a phenomenon where contaminated air leaks into homes — into the mix of projects eligible for Superfund monies. The EPA is  working on a three-year initiative, which began in 2010, to explore the possibility of combating vapor intrusion through the Superfund Program.

The cleanup of the Cornell-Dubilier Superfund site in South Plainfield, NJ continues. The site is one of the most contaminated in the nation. AP/Mike Derer.

Until 1995, the Superfund Program was financed by a “polluter tax,” which taxed oil and chemical companies. Since the tax expired, funding has dwindled. President Barack Obama, who pledged to reinstate the “polluter tax” during his campaign, has failed to do so while in office, reported PolitiFact.

So what’s next? On March 2, 2011, N.J. Sen. Frank Lautenberg introduced the Polluter Pays Restoration Act to reinstate the “polluter tax.” The bill is currently in the committee on finance, but the director of the Sierra Club’s Environmental Quality Program believes it doesn’t stand a chance of becoming a law in this tax-weary Congress, reported PolitiFact.

  • To report possible contamination call the EPA Region 2 hotline at 877-251-4575.

Court is agent (orange) of change for Passaic River contamination. On July 27, after a six-year legal battle, a Superior Court judge in Newark found Occidental Chemical Corporation liable for the removal of all hazardous waste produced by the former Diamond Shamrock plant, reported the Record. Between 1951 and 1969, Diamond Shamrock produced Agent Orange, and illegally dumped Dioxin — the toxic byproduct — into the Passaic River. The case will undoubtedly involve many more court dates, and it will probably take years before the cleanup — expected to cost $2.3 billion — is completed. Two other companies, Tierra Solutions Inc. and Maxus Energy Corp., may have also inherited Diamond Shamrock’s liability, and the judge is expected to rule on Tierra’s liability on August 24. The Environmental protection Agency is currently preparing to begin the cleanup process, which will involve building a flood wall and a new facility designed to separate clean water from Dioxin-contaminated sediment at the bottom of the Passaic, the Record reported.

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