Cleanup of Garfield Superfund site being planned, even without money to pull it off

Cleanup of Garfield Superfund site being planned, even without money to pull it off

Source:, June 13, 2014
By: Scott Fallon

Although federal officials say there is no money to clean up the polluted water spreading underneath a Garfield neighborhood, they still have enough funds to remove contamination from basements and perform a pilot study to determine how best to treat the groundwater eventually.

Officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency even hope to have a proposed cleanup plan ready by the end of next year to rid groundwater of the cancer-causing hexavalent chromium that has sat under homes for 30 years and remains a health threat for 3,700 residents.

But they still do not know when they will have enough money to do the work.

“I can’t speak as to what will happen after we come in with our plan,” said Rich Puvogel, the EPA official in charge of cleaning up the contaminated plume. “Right now we don’t know.”

Judith Enck, EPA regional administrator for New Jersey and New York, told a congressional panel on Tuesday that the agency doesn’t have the money to clean up the plume of chromium-contaminated water. U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez introduced a bill this week to reinstate a dedicated tax that would pay to clean up federal Superfund sites like Garfield’s.

Some residents feel let down by the EPA, which promised in public meetings three years ago that it would make sure the site was cleaned up.

“I knew this was going to happen,” said Bernice Riccio, whose Lincoln Place home was one of more than a dozen found to have high levels of chromium. “We can forget about our property here. It’s going to be rough when people want to sell.”

The pollution comes from the former E.C. Electroplating plant on Clark Street, where in 1983 more than 3 tons of chromium spilled into the ground. Only 30 percent of the metal solution had been recovered before the state Department of Environmental Protection allowed E.C. Electroplating’s contractors to halt a cleanup in 1985.

Since then, the chromium has spread across the southwestern corner of the city and dangerous levels of the contaminant have been detected in the basements of homes and businesses. The plume has also migrated under the Passaic River into the city of Passaic.

Federal funding for the long term cleanup of Superfund sites has dropped precipitously in recent years from $605 million in 2011, to $500 million in 2014.

Although EPA’s proposed 2015 budget for the long-term cleanup of Superfund sites is $43 million more than the current fiscal year’s, officials don’t expect that any of that money is going to Garfield because they are still developing a cleanup plan. Once the agency selects a long-term remedy for the site, Garfield will go on a national waiting list with other so-called “orphan” properties — Superfund sites that are paid for by the government instead of a polluter — and the cleanup will wait until funds are available.

About 30 percent of the nation’s 1,322 Superfund sites are considered orphan sites, and their cleanups are funded only by the federal government. Past efforts to reinstate a special tax on chemical and oil companies to fund cleanups at such sites have gained little momentum in Washington.

E.C. Electroplating was a small, family-run business, unlike the 13 other Superfund sites in Bergen and Passaic whose cleanups are being funded mostly by deep-pocketed companies, which either polluted the sites or inherited the liability.

The EPA has already spent $5 million to clean up basements, demolish the plant, and remove 5,700 tons of chromium-contaminated soil, 1,150 tons of concrete and 6,100 gallons of polluted water. The hole left from the excavation at the former site of the plant was backfilled with clean material, and the site was paved with asphalt in May.

Donald Graham, an EPA official coordinating work on the site, said the agency has enough money to test and clean any basements believed to have chromium.

During heavy rainstorms, the groundwater in the neighborhood sometimes rises high enough to seep into basements. When the water evaporates, it sometimes leaves a yellow or green dust filled with chromium crystals, which are considered extremely dangerous if inhaled. Hexavalent chromium has been known for more than a century to cause lung, nasal and sinus cancer.

No illnesses among residents have officially been linked to the contamination. The state Department of Health and Senior Services analyzed its cancer registry and did not find elevated rates of disease in the area but said the study was incomplete. Still, federal officials deemed the contamination a “serious threat to human health” and said residents are in danger anytime they go into their basements.

More than 20 properties have been found to have dangerously high levels of chromium, including homes, businesses, a senior apartment complex and a firehouse, which was forced to close because of the pollution in 1993.

Later this month, workers will begin injecting a solution of vegetable oil and sodium lactate, a food additive, into wells at the former plant in hopes that it will break down hexavalent chromium to its less toxic cousin, trivalent chromium. Despite the budget woes, the pilot project should be completed with $600,000 to $700,000 that the EPA has allocated for it, Puvogel said.

It will take six to eight months to see if the process, called enhanced anaerobic bioremediation, worked.

“It’s not a quick reaction,” said Puvogel, who has spent years studying the plume. “It takes time. When it’s over, we will be able to decide whether this technology works in this setting.”

The EPA is also considering pumping contaminated water from the ground and treating it at a facility.

“Pump and treat tends not to be as efficient in the long term,” Puvogel said. “It’s not a cure-all, but it’s another approach at going at the contamination.”

On Tuesday, a team of scientists from New York University plans to release the results of a health study looking at chromium levels in neighborhood residents. The team collected toenail samples from dozens of neighborhood residents. Chromium can become concentrated in toenails, especially if someone breathes or ingests the metal over a long period.

The study, the first attempt to conduct individual medical evaluations of residents, had been delayed because of a lack of participants. The neighborhood has a large transient population, with many new immigrants living in apartments and rental homes. The results will be released at a public meeting at 7:30 p.m. at the city recreation center, 466 Midland Ave.

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