Toxic NJ: Cleanup Backlog

NJ Spotlight News | December 10, 2015 | Energy & Environment
Thousands of old gas stations have oil tanks still in the ground.

By Brenda Flanagan

This is the final installment in a three-part series delving into the issue of oil and gasoline contamination from leaking underground storage tanks and the impact on homeowners and the environment. Watch part one and part two.

Stand downwind and you can smell gasoline vapors rising from this sludge as it cascades out of the backhoe bucket. Workers just pulled three, 6,000-gallon gas tanks from this former Valero station in Warren County. They’re now testing what lies beneath for chemical contaminants. It got added to the DEP’s list of toxic sites this October.

You can’t miss this, but suppose you just see bare concrete, or a grassy lot, where decades-old service stations have closed. What you can’t see are the toxic, cancer-causing chemicals in the ground soil. This mom of four can only remember.

“It was a gas station there,” she said. “When I was growing up it was a gas station.”

She didn’t want to show her face. She lives in a Trenton apartment house near a canal. It’s a spot listed on the DEP’s roster of contaminated underground tank sites. She didn’t realize petrochemical vapors could penetrate her basement walls. Workers did some digging here about a year ago and she claims that tenants in her apartment complex got a disturbing form letter.

“We got a letter saying that there was some type of gas station that had some type of contaminated soil. If we had any symptoms of some type of illness to contact the health department,” she said.

“I mean, I’m outraged” said Doug O’Malley from Environment NJ. “Underground storage tanks are an environmental ticking time bomb.”

O’Malley is a clean water advocate and he says that it’s treating families like pollution detectors.

“The canary in the coal mine are families here in Trenton. That’s not the way to do environmental policy in the state. Is there a problem? If you get sick — call us. That’s not how we should be treating the public in New Jersey,” he said.

According to the DEP, “Remedies don’t always require all contamination to be removed.”

They also say that it does permit tainted soil to remain in some commercial cleanup cases, and that constant monitoring at test wells is crucial for that system to work while waiting for toxins to break down.

“A contaminated site isn’t a risk unless you have contamination present, and you also have an exposure pathway. By cutting off the exposure pathway you’re really successfully remediated the site,” Kenneth Kloo from the NJ DEP, said.

Last year, New Jersey’s DEP logged 5,036 cleanups at underground storage tank sites. They also discovered and added 4,928 new sites to the list — which now totals about 14,000. Of those about 10,000 are assigned for cleanup to private engineers called LSRPs — Licensed Site Remediation Professionals. It’s the unassigned sites — and the still-undiscovered ones — that worry them.

“You have sites out there that could potentially be dangerous that aren’t being addressed,” William Groeling, President of Site Remediation Group said. “A lot of them, no one knows where the owner is, or they kind of disappeared, the company went bankrupt — that’s probably the biggest challenge, getting those sites. And that’s something that the DEP is working on.”

But even at assigned sites enforcement is the large problem. At an old Getty station in Closter, the gasoline tanks got yanked in 1998 — but on-site wells show soil contaminated with toluene and other chemicals still lies beneath the cracked asphalt. Closter Environmental Commissioner Paul MacDonald says nobody has ever tested the groundwater further downhill.

“Well, there’s definitely contamination,” he said. “I’m not aware if the contamination has moved offsite.”

That’s critical because the defunct station’s across the road from a working farm, and about 450 yards from the Oradell Reservoir — a primary drinking water source for more than a million New Jersey residents. United Water Co. says it’s detected no contamination. Daibes Enterprises bought the problematic site in 2009.

“The owners had the property for quite a while. I’m surprised it’s been sitting like this for this amount of time,” MacDonald said.

But Daibes is a year and a half behind on their clean-up schedule, the DEP says. In fact, it reports some 20 percent of sites like these are non-compliant. A federal EPA survey showed “recalcitrant responsible parties” accounted for about a third of New Jersey’s remediation backlog in 2011.

We’ve been working with municipalities as a pilot to put in a ticket initiative,” Mark Pedersen, Assistant Commissioner for the DEP said. “We’ve taken some initiative through the municipal courts and it’s worked out very well.”

But the DEP didn’t ticket Daibes, it blamed a paperwork error. Its records for the Trenton site were 18 months out-of-date. Critics says the department is too understaffed and overwhelmed to enforce its own regulations.

This fall, Closter did ticket Daibes, but only for failing to maintain the dilapidated building.

“They must’ve known there was a pollution problem in the soil underground,” MacDonald said. “When they bought it they assumed the liability.”

The Closter site’s LSRP Keith Gagnon claims that tests show the contamination gradually abates with time. They have new plans to drill extra monitoring wells across the road and closer to the reservoir next Spring. Sunoco owns the Trenton site, which hugs the Delaware Raritan Canal, and says it’s also constantly monitoring test wells waiting for contaminants to weather out of the soils. It could take years.

“We should clean up the problem and clean up the pollution, and not just hope that someone doesn’t get sick,” O’Malley said.

Mom’s lived here five years and both her young sons are chronically ill.

“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s something that I’m going to bring up to the pediatrician when I take them. It makes you wonder,”

That mom like so many people living around these kinds of sites didn’t know about the contamination or monitoring wells. Closter didn’t really know what was happening with that site either until we started making inquiries. For the record the DEP calls the Closter sites in compliance, even with those test results.

The investigation into Toxic New Jersey has been a collaboration with a dozen content partners, public radio stations and private news organizations, both Rutgers and Montclair State universities, facilitated by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Joining NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams and Brenda Flanagan is NJ Spotlight’s Scott Gurian and WNYC and New Jersey Public Radio’s Sarah Gonzalez.

Williams: Brenda, why isn’t the DEP enforcing these requirements in the first place?

Flanagan: By its own admission, the DEP is confronting so many of these sites, Mary Alice, that it has to do triage. As a matter of fact it told us this when we were there at a press availability. It says that it prioritizes, and essentially focuses on sites that pose a direct health hazard. But I think that forcing the regulations beyond that would require a lot more time and a lot more money, and that’s always in short supply down in Trenton. I think that if nobody is directly pushing for answers and for action, then the DEP is struggling to come up with the resources to keep up with it with all of these sites.

Williams: Sarah, what were some of the more surprising contaminated sites?

Gonzalez: So WNYC’s Data News team did an analysis of where New Jersey residents were in relation to all of these sites. We found that 90 percent, 89 percent of New Jerseyians live within a mile of some site that is contaminated, which I think in itself is pretty surprising. 1,400 of those sites, so 1,400 of the 14,000 contaminated sites are not in any stage of the process of ever getting it cleaned up.

Williams: What did you learn about the communities who have contaminated sites that need to be cleaned up? What did you learn about how much information they had?

Gonzalez: So we, according to the state, the Department of Environmental Protection, initially they told us “Oh, these 1,400 or so sites are mostly abandoned properties.” They told us abandoned gas stations and former dry cleaners. And we went through the list and we knocked on doors and we drove to all of those sites. And we found schools, and hospitals, and police stations and nursing homes and all of these open, active businesses that have some kind of contamination and no plan in place to ever clean it up. And when I started asking people, like Newark Schools, which are run by the state of New Jersey, or the Newark Police Department, you know, what is the situation with this site, there is some form of contamination there and there is no plan to clean it. They weren’t even aware of it. The people who should be aware of those things were not aware of it. So, there was really a communication problem between the state and the cities, and even developers and the owners, of these sites.

Williams: You interviewed people who were not aware that they had breathing in toxic fumes from what kind of factory was it, a lighter fluid factory? Were you surprised by how long it took for state involvement?

Gonzalez: I think what was surprising about that case was that in 2013, the DEP became aware that homes were built on the site of a former lighter fluid factory when homes were never supposed to be built there. It was supposed to be like a parking structure, or something like that. So, they became aware of it. They tested the air and they found out there were these toxic fumes coming into people’s homes and they kind of put a band-aid on the problem. What was surprising though, was that, and I mean, this is the nature of contamination, contamination conditions change, it spreads. We had moved a block over and now the next, to the block next to that and so residents that I spoke with got letters from the DEP just this past October saying that we have to start testing your air.

Williams: Finally, what did you learn about race and class and the role that they play in prioritizing clean up?

Gonzalez: So again, most of the state is located near a contaminated site, but 75 percent of people who live below the poverty line in New Jersey live within a mile of a site who has no plan to clean it up. 80 percent of Latinos in New Jersey live near one of these sites with no cleanup plan, and 75 percent of black residents, compared to about 40 percent of white residents.

Williams: Scott, let’s go to you. You have personal experience with this — you inherited an old, abandoned gas station that your grandfather owned, right?

Gurian: Right, I have an interesting perspective on all of this reporting we have been doing. I think that when the average person thinks of a contaminated site, they picture some former industrial facility that might have dumped chemicals into the river out back years ago. What we found out is that many of these sites are much smaller; former gas stations, former dry cleaners. As I know myself through personal experience, a few years back I inherited a former gas station that my grandparents had run back in the fifties and sixties. It had been sitting vacant for a number of decades, meanwhile there were still gas tanks in the ground. There was an enormous remediation that we had to deal with that we were told could cost over $600,000, which was more money than we had.

Williams: And who was responsible?

Gurian: That’s the question, the estate was my grandparents.

Williams: $600,000 is more than the estate was worth.

Gurian: Exactly. It’s a tricky situation and a lot of site owners are in this situation. It’s more than the property’s worth, it’s more than they can afford, what do they do about it? We were lucky in the end. It took several years of dealing with developers, with the town, with the state, and we finally actually had a developer come and purchase our property because it happened to be in a good location where he could redevelop it. Many of these site owners are in much less desirable areas, in blighted areas, in urban areas, and they don’t have that luxury of that happening. On top of that the state fund to clean up a lot these leaking, underground storage tanks have been severely depleted over the last several years.

Williams: What kind of damage was meted out by Sandy along New Jersey’s industrial coast?

Gurian: We looked at that, as well. Most of the focus after Sandy was the residential parts of the coast, the Jersey Shore, but there is a whole industrial part of the coast, particularly in Northern Jersey, where you have sewage treatment plants in New York and New Jersey that leak gallons of raw sewage into the waterways. You have a lot of oil and gas facilities in the Arthur Kill between New Jersey and Staten Island.

Williams: Why haven’t those areas gotten the kind of attention that other parts of the coast got?

Gurian: I think for several reasons. Part of it is just that people don’t live there. This is a part of the coast that people don’t see. You really need to get in a boat in order to see it. There’s not, you know, scenic walkways and so forth there. These are private industries that run this site, and the state, by and large, has left it up to these private industries to come up with solutions to mitigate their facilities from future storms.

Williams: Private individuals are responsible for not allowing this type of seepage into the waterways. Is there a need for a more comprehensive plan under the circumstances?

Gurian: That has been the criticism from some environmentalists and planning experts that we spoke to. They feel that if toxic chemicals seep out of any of these factories, these industrial facilities they affect the safety, the livelihoods, the health of potentially thousands of people. The state has made such an effort to protect the residential parts of the coast — building dunes, building sea walls and so forth. But, there hasn’t been that comprehensive approach to the industrial parts of the coast.

Williams: Do you see it anytime soon?

Gurian: There? It hasn’t been proposed yet. It’s hard to come up with solutions. These are facilities that are hundreds of acres in some cases. There are no simple answers, but environmentalists say that the state needs to at least start having the conservation.

This story is part of Dirty Little Secrets, a series investigating New Jersey’s toxic legacy. Participating news partners include New Jersey Public Radio/WNYC, WHYY, NJTV, NJ Spotlight, Jersey Shore Hurricane News, WBGO, New Brunswick Today and the Rutgers Department of Journalism and Media Studies. The collaboration is facilitated by The Center for Investigative Reporting, with help from the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State.