EPA to Pitch Final Cleanup for Newark Superfund Site

Joe Tyrrell | August 2, 2012 | Energy & Environment
Officials admit choice isn’t the best option, but costs play role in proposal

After more than two decades of enforcement actions at the old White Chemical Corp. plant in Newark, environmental officials have proposed the final stage of the three-phase cleanup at the Superfund site, while acknowledging their choice would not be the “most effective” approach.

Officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will hold a hearing tonight at 7 p.m. in city council chambers at Newark City Hall on Broad Street to present their plan for “bioremediation.” That involves injecting a mixture of carbon and iron into the site to counter volatile organic compounds linked to cancers and other health problems.

Coupled with long-term monitoring, the plan should “prevent exposure via drinking and showering” to amounts of chemicals above safe limits, while reducing the remaining concentrations in groundwater and the underlying aquifer “to the extent practical,” according to the agency’s own assessment.

Its other virtue is price. Coupled with monitoring wells, the agency projects the cleanup will cost $24.9 million over 30 years. For the Superfund, which has been strapped for cash since Congress allowed its supporting tax on polluting industries to expire, stretching dollars has become the key to acceptable outcomes.

EPA spokesman Elias Rodriguez said the agency already has spent about $20 million on the White Chemical cleanup since taking responsibility for it from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which conducted initial investigations in 1989. The 4.4-acre property was promptly added to the Superfund list in 1991.

The first phase of work “alleviated immediate threats” to the community, according to a statement from the EPA. White was simply the last in a long line of industrial users, taking over in 1983 from an AZS subsidiary, and the cleanup was “complex and dangerous and included removing drums of potentially explosive chemicals, addressing leaking chemicals throughout the site, and decontaminating some buildings.”

In phase one, the agency oversaw the removal of 9,000 drums, 12,500 chemical containers, 50,000 gallons of liquid contained in process tanks. In phase two, it demolished nine buildings, excavated 23,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and alleviated harmful vapors.

To offset those costs and the future clean-up actions, the EPA has recovered only $6.5 million from White Chemical, which filed for bankruptcy shortly after operations were halted, its landlord AZS Corp., and other parties, according to Rodriguez.

As state director of the Sierra Club, Jeff Tittel is usually handy with a quote about almost any polluted site. But the Frelinghuysen Avenue site, which is near Weequahic Park, the Anheuser-Busch brewery, senior citizen housing, and the Amtrak line, has personal resonance for him.

“My family is from the Ironbound and I can remember going past that place a lot as a kid,” Tittel said. “It always reeked.”

While glad that the EPA is moving to the final phase, “it’s taken so long,” Tittel said. And he wishes the agency had decided to pursue the best clean-up option.

According to the EPA, coupling the bioremediation with the installation of electrodes to cook centers of contaminants, “thermal remediation,” would “provide the highest mass reduction” in the most heavily contaminated area “within the shortest period of time.” It would also “be the most effective in reducing toxicity and volume of contamination,” the agency found. But that would cost an estimated $57.9 million over 30 years.

A third alternative, relying primarily on an oxidant along with a lesser amount of the carbon mix, carries at estimated $31 million cost. The EPA views that as slightly less effective than either of the other alternatives. The law also requires EPA to consider no action, but it found that could result in continuing exposure on site and the industrial/residential neighborhood and potentially beyond through water.

The agency’s analysis said the area’s complicated geology, including the difficulty of reaching the aquifer under the rail line, would make it problematic to attempt a total cleanup. The goal is to restore the groundwater to state and federal standards, although not for future residential use.

“The EPA’s prior soil cleanup required that a deed restriction be implemented and require that the property be limited to commercial/light industrial use,” Rodriguez said. “The type of development ultimately selected will factor in when the development will occur and EPA will continue to coordinate with the City of Newark on any proposals.”

But Tittel said geology has become a fallback excuse to cut costs when there is little pressure to do a more thorough cleanup.

“This is more about a lack of political will than it is about geology,” he said.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s office did not respond to questions about whether it is satisfied with the clean-up proposal or about possible redevelopment.

The EPA will continue to accept public comments until Aug. 21. They can be submitted to: Ray Klimcsak, Remedial Project Manager; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – Region 2; 290 Broadway – 19th Floor; New York, N.Y. 10007-1866;
(212) 637-3916 or klimcsak.raymond@epa.gov