Superfund cuts could delay Garfield cleanup

Superfund cuts could delay Garfield cleanup

Source: The Record (Hackensack, NJ), August 5, 2012
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Proposed cuts to the federal Superfund program may delay the long-term cleanup of cancer-causing chromium that has spread underneath a neighborhood of hundreds of homes and businesses in Garfield.

President Obama’s plan to cut $37 million from the Superfund program as well as the strong potential for even more cuts in the future would force federal environmental officials to postpone the start of remediation projects at toxic sites nationwide.

These are the sites that are funded exclusively by taxpayers, which includes the Garfield site, where cancer-causing chromium has been spreading under a neighborhood of 3,700 residents for almost three decades.

As the U.S. continues to struggle with its history of industrial pollution, Garfield finds itself in the middle of a debate in Congress over who should pay for the cleanup of the worst toxic sites in the nation. Once seen as a surefire way to rid New Jersey of its record number of Superfund sites, the program has been stymied over the years by a dwindling amount of funding leading to cleanups that move at a glacial pace.

The budget problems won’t affect work under way to remove a pocket of highly contaminated chromium on the site in Garfield that is believed to be the source of widespread contamination, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said. But cleaning up the contaminated groundwater that has spread beyond the boundaries of the Superfund site may be pushed back years.

Federal officials have said the contamination remains a potential health threat because it can infiltrate basements. More than a dozen homes and businesses have been contaminated. A nearby fire house was found to have so much chromium inside that it had to be abandoned in 1993. The building is still there, boarded up and awaiting a cleanup.

The EPA refused interview requests last week on the federal budget’s impact on Garfield. But in June, the EPA official who oversees almost 200 Superfund cleanups in New York and New Jersey said in an interview that work in Garfield could be delayed in coming years.

“The real problem at the moment is anticipated lack of funding for the remedial construction,” said Walter Mugdan, the Superfund division director for EPA Region 2.

“The question is what happens in 2014, and 2014 won’t be a whole lot better than 2013, it may be worse,” he said. “There’s at least the possibility that you would have a design done in 2014 and couldn’t actually start the work because you don’t have the money.”

The cuts also raise the question of who should pay to clean up so-called orphan sites where there is no deep-pocketed polluter, which is the case with the Garfield site. A bill by U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg to reinstate a special tax on chemical and oil companies to fund Superfund projects has gained little momentum in Washington.

The $37 million represents only a 3 percent cut of the proposed $1.176 billion Superfund budget. But EPA officials have testified before Congress that the drop is enough to halt the start of all new long-term cleanups.

“The bottom line is it’s going to take longer to clean up these sites and people living around them will be at risk for a greater amount of time,” said Ed Hopkins, the national Sierra Club’s director of environmental quality programs.

Critical time for city

Garfield officials said the potential slowdown was not acceptable, considering that state environmental officials failed to address the problem for decades.

In 1983 almost three tons of chromium spilled into the ground from a tank at E.C. Electroplating on Clark Street. Less than two years later, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection allowed E.C.’s contractors to suspend cleanup efforts even though only 30 percent of the chromium had been recovered.

“It’s disgraceful that this town has had chromium in the ground for 30 years and now it may be even longer,” said Deputy Mayor Tana Raymond. “I don’t care what it takes, a lawsuit, lobbying in Washington, I’m going to make sure the money is there. We’re talking about people’s lives, their homes, that have been affected.”

The budget cut comes at a critical time for Garfield. It became a Superfund site only last year and EPA scientists are trying to determine how far a contaminated plume of groundwater has spread.

The site encompasses 600 homes and businesses, but it may affect even more. High levels of hexavalent chromium were detected late last year in monitoring wells drilled by the EPA outside the boundaries of the Superfund site, which is bounded by Van Winkle Avenue to the north, Monroe Street to the south, Sherman Place to the east and the Passaic River to the west. The government doesn’t consider it an immediate health risk since the high levels were detected more than 100 feet below ground. But the EPA is still concerned. Nine wells have been drilled outside the neighborhood, including one in the city of Passaic to the west across the Passaic River.

The investigation should be able to be completed with current funding, officials said. But the actual cleanup work, such as siphoning the groundwater and treating it, is in jeopardy of being pushed back.

Garfield is likely the only Superfund site among the 13 in Bergen and Passaic counties that will be affected by the budget cut because the others have a responsible party, such as a polluter or a company that inherited the liability of a site, to pay for at least some of the long-term cleanup.

For Instance, technology giant Honeywell will pay $72 million to prevent contamination from spreading at the Quanta Resources Superfund site in Edgewater. In Fair Lawn, three companies agreed to pay $1.6 million to study the extent of contamination at a well field. And in the Meadowlands, $12.5 million from insurer American International Group is being used to clean up mercury from Berry’s Creek and the Ventron/Velsicol Superfund site.

The federal budget cut won’t affect the initial cleanup at the E.C. plant where investigators are trying to remove the source of the contamination believed to be a pool of highly concentrated chromium directly under the plant.

The EPA has already approved $4 million to demolish the plant and remove the pool of chemicals underneath it. The money has come in increments, which has pushed back the timetable slightly, EPA officials said. But work at the site has never had to shut down because of funding and officials don’t anticipate that it will.

112 sites in New Jersey

When it was signed into law in 1980, the Superfund program provided the federal government with the power to compel those responsible for contamination to clean it up or reimburse the government for doing so. It was especially important in New Jersey. Of the 1,304 Superfund sites nationwide, 112 are in New Jersey — the most of any state.

It also established taxes on chemical and oil companies — 9.7 cents per barrel of crude oil and from 22 cents to $4.87 per ton of chemicals — to fund the cleanup of orphan sites. Revenues were pooled and used to clean up Superfund sites if the company responsible for the pollution no longer exists, could not be traced or simply did not have the money, as is the case with E.C. Electroplating’s longtime owners, the Calderio family.

In 1986 and 1990, the tax was reauthorized with bipartisan support in Congress and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush, respectively. It expired in 1995 when Congress refused to reauthorize it despite the urging of President Bill Clinton. President George W. Bush did not support reauthorizing the tax, arguing it unfairly burdened companies that played no role in the pollution.

Once the “polluter pays” provision was phased out, there was no dedicated source of funding for the Superfund, so it had to compete with every other federal program for discretionary money.

The trust fund’s money drained from $4.7 billion in 1997 to zero in 2004.

Former Gov. Jim Florio, who as a congressman in the late 1970s authored the law that created the Superfund, said that relying on taxpayers to pay for cleanups runs counter to the program’s original intent. To ensure that sites like Garfield are cleaned in a timely manner, he said, there had to be a steady and dedicated funding source in the form of a special tax on chemical and oil companies.

“It’s pretty clear that if you had that funding in place, you would be able to do the work that needs to be done,” Florio said in an interview. “You have to remember Superfund deals with sites where there are substantial and imminent dangers. We have more Superfund sites than any place in the union, so this affects New Jersey in a much more substantial way.”

In recent years, there has been a push to reinstate the tax with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the former head of the NJDEP, testifying in favor of the plan before Congress. Last year, Lautenberg reintroduced the Polluter Pays Restoration Act, which was designed to generate up to $2 billion a year by making polluting industries fund Superfund cleanups. The bill has gone nowhere.

“Budget cuts to clean Superfund sites are concerning, but the bottom line is that taxpayers shouldn’t be responsible to clean up after major polluters in the first place,” said Lautenberg, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health.

The American Chemistry Council argues that the law discriminated against its members while other businesses that have also created Superfund sites — mining companies, landfills, rail yards, farms, military installations and others — were not required to pay the tax.

“Taxing today’s chemical manufacturers doesn’t make much sense,” said Walter Moore, vice president of federal affairs for the council. “Why should a company that makes chemicals for something like photovoltaic solar panel be responsible for PCBs manufactured 50 years ago?”

Hopkins of the Sierra Club believes that the lack of funding will also reduce investigations to determine if a toxic site belongs on the Superfund list.

“It’s better to view this as a long-term trend because this is a long-term cleanup program,” he said.

Staff Writer James M. O’Neill contributed to this article.

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