Controversy Over South Plainfield Superfund Site Cleanup

Some are criticizing a $22 million settlement to clean up the Superfund site.

By Brenda Flanagan

The muddy alphabet soup of carcinogens — also known as the Bound Brook — meanders past the former Cornell-Dubilier Electronics plant in South Plainfield. The EPA razed buildings at the 26-acre Superfund toxic waste site, treated and capped contaminants beneath scabs of asphalt.

“When they put all that plastic down, I guess they’d want to prevent fumes from coming out — rain soaking down and maybe causing whatever chemicals are there to get further down into the water system. I really never knew for sure,” said resident Robert Kelso.

“I know a lot of this went on in the creeks and everything because I have a creek behind me and it had been a mess. And where was it coming from? It was coming from Plainfield,” said resident Joan Cembrola.

The EPA banned consumption of even one fish because both fish and brook sediments are laced with cancer-causing solvents — TCEs and PCBs — all flowing downstream. The money’s flowing, too: EPA will get most of a recent $22 million settlement with DSC, which now owns the property but did not dump the carcinogens. Add to that funds recovered from Cornell-Dubilier and so far, EPA’s recovered just $43 million. But it’s already spent more $180 million cleaning up the site and expects to spend another $250 million cleaning the Bound Brook. Some residents disapprove.

“Everybody fills their pocket on the taxpayer. That’s our society today,” said Dominic D’Amico.

“My personal opinion is that the settlement is fair,” said John Prince of the EPA.

Prince explained his agency’s philosophy.

“Cornell is a small company that still exists and we do have a settlement in place with them as well, and their settlement is based on their ability to pay. It’s based on their capacity to contribute. EPA and the federal government is not seeking settlements looking to put people out of business,” Prince said.

“We’re glad the EPA has gone after them and required a certain amount of cleanup, but we don’t believe it’s gone far enough, as far as protecting the environment and protecting the people who live in the area,” said Jeff Tittel of the NJ Sierra Club.

Tittel says a thorough cleanup requires restoration. That goes to the heart of a larger controversy — the Christie administration’s recently-proposed Exxon refinery settlement for $225 million, when full restoration would cost an estimated $9 billion.

Regarding the Cornell-Dubilier settlement, South Plainfield’s mayor said, “…it’s nowhere near the investment that the EPA put in, but any time you can collect money from a responsible party, it’s good news. You come to a realization that 100 percent remediation is not possible. While we would all like it, it’s not possible.” EPA expects to announce detailed plans to clean up the Bound Brook soon.

“You know what? No matter who has to pay for it, it’s gotta be cleaned up,” Cembrola said.

Lawyers can put big price tags on the true worth of the Bound Brook, but courts rarely award that much money, public agencies say, so often they forgo the heroic lawsuits and settle for what they think they can get.