New Jersey’s Overlooked Superfund Sites

Tom Johnson | February 16, 2012 | Energy & Environment
Freedom of Information Act reveals 27 toxic sites that could have qualified for Superfund status

Long saddled with the dubious distinction of having the most toxic waste sites on the Superfund National Priority list, it actually might have been a lot worse for New Jersey.

At least 27 sites in the state scored high enough on the numerical ranking system used to qualify for federal funding and assistance for cleanups, but were not added to the list by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to agency documents obtained by an interest group under the Freedom of Information Act.

New Jersey currently has 144 toxic wastes sites on the National Priority List, many of which have been awaiting cleanup for decades.

The omissions included some of the highest-profile toxic sites in New Jersey, including DuPont in Pompton Lakes, where pollution from the former plant has seeped into groundwater, releasing toxic vapors into 450 nearby homes and the lake. Former Gov. Jim Florio and Love Canal activist Lois Gibbs both have said the Passaic County cleanup should be a national priority.

To environmentalists, the failure to include the sites on the Superfund list is particularly galling, given that the state has privatized its hazardous waste cleanup program, a decision they argue can result in cheaper cleanups and less public scrutiny of how pollution problems are remedied.

According to the agency’s own internal documents, obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, 27 sites scored greater than 28.5 points, the qualifying score for making it onto the priority list.

The scores reflect a number of diverse problems, ranging from toxic vapors seeping into nearby buildings as in Pompton Lakes to pollution of drinking water by a former machine shop, as in Berlin Township in Camden County. Passed over sites stretched from Fair Lawn in Bergen County to Gloucester in Gloucester County, encompassing 11 counties.

The federal government’s decision to bypass these sites leaves the problems under state auspices, according to Bill Wolfe, director of NJ Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), who said the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has a history of prolonged but ineffective cleanups. He noted that a 2008 EPA Inspector General report described the state agency’s track record at cleaning up waste sites as among the worst in the nation and recommended a federal takeover.

DEP officials took issue with that IG report, saying in each of the cases cited by the agency, cleanups were ongoing at the identified sites, according to Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the agency.

As for the omission of sites from the Superfund National Priority List, Hajna said many of those locations are smaller sites where cleanups are already ongoing, such as having water treatment plants in place to deal with contaminated water.

“Those sites tend to be not the larger sites associated with Superfund,’’ he said.

The DuPont site is 540 acres.

Still, Wolfe discounted Hajna’s argument. “The size of the site is irrelevant; it is the actual risk posed to the public by the site. That’s what those numbers reflect.’’

The EPA declined to respond to questions, but issued a statement from its press office in Region II, the area covering New Jersey and New York, among other locations.. The agency said the sites mentioned by PEER are being handled under New Jersey’s cleanup program or under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which includes the DuPont site.

“Placing sites on the Superfund list is a decision made using a number of factors, not just their hazardous ranking score,’’ the statement said. “One important factor is whether the site is being addressed under another cleanup program, as is the case with these sites.’’

That argument does not hold much sway with environmentalists.

“It matters because the federal government has resources, both in terms of dollars and expertise,’’ Wolfe said. He noted New Jersey received $160 million in federal stimulus funds to clean up eight Superfund sites and has won billions in prior Superfund grants, although that fund is greatly depleted.

Jeff Tittel, director of the NJ Sierra Club agreed that it makes a difference whether sites are placed on the Superfund list, which he argued has stricter standards for cleanups. “The state program is much more about redevelopment than cleanups,’’ he said.

Hajna said that argument is a red herring, given the fact that environmentalists have long opposed efforts to implement a Licensed Site Remediation Program, which uses private contractors hired by polluters to clean up waste sites.