CARTERET - The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection recently issued conditional permits for a project to clean up one of the state’s most toxic sites on the mouth of the Rahway River in Carteret. But a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds the NJDEP is moving forward with the project, despite repeated written warnings from some of its own professionals that the plan could do more harm than good.
Some environmentalists have long opposed the project. NY/NJ Baykeeper Debbie Mans and Edison Wetlands Association President Bob Spiegel predicts, “It’s going to be an environmental disaster.”
There’s little doubt that the property, site of an old American Cyanimid plant, is desperately in need of remediation. Acres of it are covered in cyanide tainted sludge that leeches into groundwater when it rains. Soil Safe, a Maryland Company, and independent site remediation professional Al Free propose capping the site with 1.5 million tons of contaminated soil mixed with concrete. "A year from now, people are going to be amazed at how much better this site has gotten already, and we won’t be anywhere close to done with remediation," Free says.
But the environmentalists worry the weight of all that soil will push sludge and cyanide directly into Rahway River, a situation Spiegel compares to “squeezing a tube of toothpaste.” Free disagrees, saying the cohesiveness of the concrete will limit the downward pressure.
But documents obtained by Kane In Your Corner show some professionals inside the NJDEP share the environmentalists’ concerns. In July, 2010, when the project was first proposed, one NJDEP official wrote a memo warning the project “may have very unexpected consequences in forcing out the alum sludge and/or dissolved contaminants into the adjacent Rahway River.” He went on to say, “I fail to see how this proposed project has any benefit.”
“This is just another example of pressure being put on the leadership of the department to override staff concerns,” Mans says.
NJDEP officials declined to be interviewed on camera. Off camera, agency spokesman Larry Ragonese said the department’s attitude about the project changed after the final engineering design was released last November. “The plan was substantially improved; the final reviews and comments have been much more improved because of those improvements,” Ragonese says.
But the documents obtained by Kane In Your Corner show NJDEP professionals continuing to raise concerns well after the final design was released. In January 2013, two separate NJDEP reports warn the project might force contaminants into adjacent areas. In March 2013, another NJDEP report expresses concern that it “will likely result in a discharge to the river,” and this time asks Free and Soil Safe point blank to “please explain why this is not a valid concern.”
Free insists he responded to that request and that NJDEP is now “fully on board.” But in the final review report, dated May 2, 2013, a NJDEP Technical Coordinator calls the responses incorrect or incomplete, and raises the possibility that proponents of the project are simply “relying on departmental approval of the proposed remedial action” anyway.
If they were, they were right. Three weeks later, the agency issued the permits.