Seven NJ Superfund sites to get new money for cleanup

JON HURDLE, CONTRIBUTING WRITER | DECEMBER 22, 2021

NJ Spotlight News

March 22, 2013, at Superfund site in Garfield where toxic hexavalent chromium was spilled

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New federal funding from President Biden’s infrastructure law is on the way to revive the long-delayed cleanups of seven Superfund sites in New Jersey, but it is still just a small dent in the state’s standing as having the most such badly polluted sites in the country.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday announced the seven New Jersey sites among 49 nationwide that will share $1 billion as the first tranche of funding from the new law to help clean up a legacy of industrial contamination that threatens human health and fouls the environment from coast to coast. In total, the law allocated $3.5 billion for Superfund cleanup.

In New Jersey, the need to remove toxins like lead, chromium and PCBs is particularly acute because about half the population lives within three miles of a Superfund site; many affected residents are people of color from communities deemed especially hard-hit.

“This funding will be transformational for New Jersey communities impacted by toxic contamination and will provide critical investments in communities of color and low-income communities, which are disproportionately affected by legacy contamination from abandoned Superfund sites,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D), the state’s senior senator, in a statement.

But that still leaves more than 100 Superfund cleanups in New Jersey still incomplete. One of the chief authors of the 40-year-old law applauded the new money but said the scores of other unfinished projects remain a potential danger.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio, who as a congressman in the 1970s led the Superfund bill that President Jimmy Carter signed in 1980.

Impact on water can be ‘devastating’

“Many of these sites have been around for a long, long time,” Florio said. “If you’re talking about 114 sites in NJ, we only have 21 counties, so that’s an average of five sites per county. So everyone lives reasonably close to these things, and the impact on water supply can be devastating.”

So-called environmental justice communities that expect to benefit from the latest cleanups include that around the White Chemical site in Newark, where a variety of chemicals were manufactured starting in 1983, and where soil and water have been contaminated with volatile organic compounds and other pollutants.

EPA officials found thousands of deteriorating containers leaking chemicals into the soil and water, leading to a cleanup that began in 1991. The agency now projects several rounds of “bio-remediation” designed to clean up the contaminated groundwater.

“This federal funding will enable us to spur redevelopment of the Dayton neighborhood and enhance both Newark’s prosperity and a higher quality of life for local residents,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

In Garfield, the new funding will enable the continued cleanup of groundwater that began in 1983 when a tank operated by E.C. Electroplating leaked more than 3,600 gallons of chromium-plating solution into two aquifers.

Hexavalent chromium in home basements

EPA officials later found hexavalent chromium — the chemical made famous by the California environmental campaigner Erin Brockovich — in the basement of 14 Garfield homes, according to agency records. The cleanup is now expected to be complete in 2022.

And in Vineland, a site where pesticides were manufactured by the Kil-Tone company between 1910 and 1930 is contaminated with arsenic and lead — which have also affected local waterways as well as residential and non-residential properties. The new funds will be used to excavate contaminated soil on at least 36 properties, restore the properties, and safely dispose of the contaminated soil, the EPA says.

The other four are the Diamond Head Oil Refinery in Kearny; the Kauffman & Minteer site in Jobstown; the Roebling Steel Co. site in Florence, and the Unimatic Manufacturing Corp. site in Fairfield.

The EPA said the sites were chosen because they are all “orphan” sites — where the federal government pays for the cleanup because the responsible party has gone out of business or can’t pay, and because most of them are “shovel-ready” projects where implementation has been held up by lack of funding.

“Given past funding limitations, EPA has prioritized funding for previously mobilized, multi-year, ongoing construction projects before funding new construction projects,” the agency said in a statement. Historically, it said about 60% of Superfund cleanup at sites that are not federal facilities has been paid for by the responsible parties.

Shovel-ready

The seven sites “do not pose more or less risk” than the other 107 Superfund sites in New Jersey, but were selected because they were shovel-ready, and waiting for funding when the infrastructure law was signed, said Stephen McBay, an EPA spokesman.

The other sites are in “various stages of cleanup,” he said. Of those, federally funded projects may get done faster as more of the infrastructure money becomes available. In the past, a shortage of appropriated funds has often stopped the EPA from beginning work on sites.

The $1 billion announcement is “just the beginning” and will “dramatically” impact the agency’s ability to address legacy pollution, McBay said.

But even with the new funding, New Jersey remains far from solving its Superfund problem, experts said.

Former Gov. Florio blamed the slow progress of the program on a shortage of funding resulting from the expiration in 1995 of a Superfund tax which was designed to allow the federal government to fund the cleanup of  orphan sites.

Restore Superfund tax?

“The theme of Superfund is that the polluter should pay, not the taxpayer,” he said, in an interview with NJ Spotlight News. “The people who cause these problems will be much less inclined to do so if they have to pay for them.”

The infrastructure law addresses the long absence of the Superfund tax by imposing fees on polluters that are expected to help replenish a fund that pays for federally funded cleanups.

“It’s critical to target federal money for these orphan sites because there’s no one to get the money from, and that’s why we should restore the Superfund tax so that you can get the money to do the cleanup rather than taking it from federal dollars,” said Jeff Tittel, former director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, and a longtime advocate for Superfund cleanups.

Because of the shortage of funding, the EPA has been forced to choose from a long list of sites to clean up, and that process is shown again with the infrastructure law’s funding, Tittel said.

He welcomed the latest selection but said more needs to be done. “Every year of delay means more of those toxic chemicals spreading into the environment and spreading into communities,” he said.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-12-22 03:07:35 -0800