KIYC: DEP clears way for Rahway River cleanup as questions emerge about safety

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection recently issued a permit clearing the way for a cleanup to begin at a contaminated site in Carteret. (3/6/14)

CARTERET - The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection recently issued a permit clearing the way for a cleanup to begin at a contaminated site in Carteret. But a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds key information about the project has never been released to the public, and there is reason to believe it may do more harm than good.

The former American Cyanamid property in Carteret contains acres of cyanide-tainted sludge.  The property owners and Soil Safe, a Maryland company, propose to cap it with petroleum-contaminated soil mixed with cement.  As Kane In Your Corner reported exclusively last year, the NJDEP fast-tracked the project despite fierce opposition from several of its own staff members, who repeatedly warned in internal memos that the project could result in cyanide being pushed into the Rahway River. Bob Spiegel, of the Edison Wetlands Association, predicts the result will be "a toxic landslide."

The project is backed by powerful political muscle. Sen. Bob Smith, chair of the Senate Environmental Committee, represented Soil Safe at county hearings. Paul Weiner, law partner of Sen. Ray Lesniak, is one of the property owners. And Soil Safe's top officials have donated tens of thousands of dollars to Senate President Steve Sweeney.  The DEP insists its staff is simply now convinced the project is safe and deny that political influence played a role.

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But there are new questions about the effectiveness of the method Soil Safe says it will use. The company says the blend of petroleum-tainted soil and cement "entraps any contaminant that might be in the soil." But a new lawsuit filed this week stemming from a different Soil Safe project raises questions about that technique. 

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network accuses Soil Safe of, among other things, exceeding contamination limits at its facility in Logan Township. "We don't think that they are safely encapsulating the contaminants," says Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum.

Soil Safe has also been reluctant to provide New Jersey residents with evidence that its process works. The details are ostensibly spelled out in a geotechnical report filed with the NJDEP, but the version released to the public under the Open Public Records Act has dozens of key pages missing. The agency says its engineers have reviewed the complete, unredacted report, but agreed to keep parts of it confidential because Soil Safe considered the information proprietary. 

Professional Engineer William Mercurio, who reviewed the publicly available documents at the request of environmental groups, is unimpressed with that argument. "I can't understand why they wouldn't make that available," he says. "I'm proud of every product I produce and there's no reason to hold back." Based on the information available, Mercurio says he would not recommend that the project move forward.

Soil Safe declined to be interviewed. The company issued a statement saying it complies with all laws and has no current violations.

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