KIYC: Environmentalists say toxic cleanup system is broken

The Rahway River Watershed Association is asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to intervene in an environmental cleanup that was the subject of a Kane In Your Corner investigation. Environmentalists say the project is another example of a statewide remediation system that's broken.

A large mound of contaminated dirt in Linden marks the latest example of a new breed of environmental cleanup project, made popular by the Christie Administration. Private companies do the work, with the approval of the NJ Department of Environmental Protection. The big selling point is that the cleanup happens at no cost to taxpayers. But Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club says trusting property owners to clean up their own contaminated sites is a big mistake.

"It's not just the fox guarding the henhouse, it's the fox designing the henhouse, building the henhouse and then certifying the henhouse is safe," he says.

The soil at Tremley Point was only mildly contaminated. But the property owner, Dredge Management Associates, submitted a Remedial Action Workplan that called for dumping tons of additional contaminated soil on top. Defenders of these projects say the additional tainted soil is a necessary evil. The disposal fees offset the cost of remediation, in this case a cap to prevent contamination from washing into the Rahway River. Environmentalists worry because the property underneath the cap inevitably ends up more contaminated, not less.

So do homeowners, who live near Tremley Point. "Yeah, I'm worried" says Judy England McCarthy of Linden. "I'm worried I'll end up with contamination in my water supply."

A Kane In Your Corner investigation in October found the Tremley Point project was beset with problems almost from the beginning. The NJDEP has issued two violations. One accuses the owners of dumped unapproved fill material that was more contaminated than the tainted soil they were supposed to be remediating.

The state also granted the owners a waiver, allowing them to dump contaminated dirt close to the water's edge. The waiver was based on an application in which the owners promised to first build walls around the site to prevent contaminants from reaching the water. To this day, no walls have been built.

NJDEP spokesman Bob Considine says the agency is powerless to enforce the promise because it only appears in the application, not the permit itself. "The permit, not the Hardship Waiver Application, is the only enforceable document," he says.

Tittel says that explanation is more proof owners of contaminated property are allowed to play by different rules than the rest of us. "If you said you were building a deck and ended up building a family room, the zoning officer would come after you," he says.

This isn't the first time Kane In Your Corner has exposed state-approved private environmental cleanups that did more harm than good.

In 2013, the NJDEP let a private company reopen the contaminated Fenimore Landfill in Roxbury, to pay for a cleanup there. Toxic fumes from the project made people sick. The state wound up taking over the property and conducting the remediation at taxpayer expense.

And the largest private cleanup in state history, Encap, ended in disaster. The developer, who had promised to build homes and a golf course on a large toxic site in the Meadowlands, went bankrupt instead. As in Tremley Point, Encap contractors used unapproved fill that was far more contaminated than what was there to begin with. That cleanup wound up costing taxpayers a whopping $50 million.

"We haven't learned," Tittle says. "We're still doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome."


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