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Jersey City – In the shadow of Jersey City’s gleaming new high-rises lies 900 Garfield Avenue—16 acres of land contaminated by hexavalent chromium, a toxic byproduct of the chrome production that occurred there during the city’s industrial heyday.
Jersey City, now increasingly populated by Wall Street commuters, artists, and recent college graduates, is racing—and sometimes stumbling—toward the future, eager to forget what put the city on the map in the first place. Luxury apartments, boutiques and upscale restaurants now dot the landscape where factories, rail-lines and warehouses once dominated.
But Jersey City’s industrial past remains a potent presence: for almost every new building ascending skyward, there seems to be a corresponding contaminated plot of land plunging deep into the earth, demanding redress.
20 years ago, Pittsburgh-based chemical company PPG signed an agreement with the state and promised to cleanup Garfield Avenue, but no work was done. Now, discussions about how best to remediate the site are beginning again.
900 Garfield Avenue is the largest site in Jersey City still waiting to shed its poisonous past. The plant that operated there from 1924 – 1963 made chrome—a material used in paint, textiles, and most famously, as a shiny coat for car bumpers. Tons of green-gray mud, the most toxic byproduct of chrome production and chromium ore processing residue (COPR), a slightly less toxic, but still dangerous form of the substance, were also produced. During the 1960s and 70s, COPR was used all over the city as fill for homes, schools and businesses.
Hexavalent chromium causes cancer; people who work around it are more likely to develop lung cancer than the general population. Newer health studies link ingestion of the substance to kidney disease and other forms of gastrointestinal and esophageal cancer.
The news that the land might soon be toxin-free should have encouraged local residents to breathe a welcome sigh of relief. Instead, it has inspired new anger and frustration.
Confusion, mistrust and skepticism surround the plans for the upcoming remediation, and many residents fear that the cleanup will not be completed in ways that safeguard their health.
900 Garfield Avenue’s cleanup comes on the heels of another remediation of an equally toxic chromium site in Jersey City. In 2003, a federal Judge required the Honeywell Corporation, which owned 34 acres of polluted land on Route 440, to remediate that site. A court order spelled out every step of the process—from soil removal to groundwater remediation.
The plans detailing Garfield Avenue’s cleanup, however, are not as specific or as strong as those that governed the Route 440 site, explained Joe Morris, an organizer of ICO—Interfaith Community Organization—which is currently involved in litigation against PPG in conjunction with two other groups—the Natural Resources Defense Council and GRACO, a community watch group. Together, the three groups hope that suing PPG at a Federal level will result in a definitive order to have all of the contaminated soil removed. Currently, PPG is bound only by a consent order—a legal document that requires the company to figure out how to best clean up the site. The order requires them to address an additional 19 sites around Jersey City and Bayonne where chromium was used to fill. It’s the same type of document that PPG signed in 1990.
Bill Matsikoudis, a lawyer for Jersey City who was involved in negotiating the consent order, promises that this one is more stringent than the one 20 years ago. “This one has a judicially enforceable 5-year schedule,” he said. If PPG reneges, he explained, the city would go after them and force them to do what they failed to last time around.
But that’s not enough of a guarantee for many people. “For Honeywell, there were clear marching orders from a judge,” Joe Morris said. “The court ordered the removal of contaminated soil. But here we don’t necessarily have that, and PPG has said they’re not inclined to do that.” Morris added that there are no specific provisions for groundwater cleanup. “There’s a lake of heavily polluted water underneath Garfield Avenue, and unless that’s addressed too, the water will continue to pollute the ground for decades.”
Morris said that neither ICO nor the other two groups suing PPG trust that the company will do what is needed to protect public health without explicit, enforceable orders. “They haven’t exactly demonstrated their ability to protect public health in the past…and really, this isn’t a cleanup deal. This is an agreement to reach an agreement,” Morris explained. “The site administrator for Honeywell had no choice but to follow the orders of the judge.”
In this case, decisions about how to remediate the site will be left in the hands of the recently-appointed independent Site Administrator, Mike McCabe, Project Manager Brian McPeak and the technical consultant they hire. According to Morris, leaving these big decisions up for debate is what makes many people question how clean the site will actually be.
Locals like Joyce Willis are skeptical after 20 years of inaction.
When asked about the Garfield Avenue site, Mrs. Willis cocks her head and draws her lips together angrily.
“It’s been decades. They didn’t fully clean up the first, and we have no reason to believe they will now,” she said, sitting down at her dining room table.
Joyce Willis prepares bitter melon—a small, crinkly, cucumber-like vegetable for her husband, Severn, twice a day. His blood sugar is high, and bitter melon is supposed to help bring glucose levels down. They try, they say, to live healthy lives.
But, despite their efforts, the Willises are anxious about their health and well being: their house on Randolph Avenue is located just one block west of 900 Garfield Avenue.
Joyce Willis has lived in the house on Randolph Avenue since 1958, when her parents moved there from Long Island. Her husband joined her there in the 1970s, when they both took care of Joyce’s ailing mother.
“As a teenager, I worked in the film factory, right next door to the PPG site,” Willis said. “I don’t know what I was exposed to. Now, almost every house on my block has someone who has died from cancer—lung cancer, breast cancer, brain cancer. My father died of lung cancer.”
Joyce Willis wonders if she’s next. She and many of her neighbors want to be tested for chromium.
Michael McCabe, the newly appointed Site Administrator, said that drawing a causal relationship between diseases experienced by people in the local community and potential chromium exposure is difficult.
“There are too many other factors you have to include—do people smoke, do they have a family history of a disease or diabetes?” Chromium-related illnesses are very hard to discover and track, he explained. This is, in part, because after hexavalent chromium enters the body, it is converted into trivalent chromium—a form of the substance that everyone needs. “So,” McCabe said, “unless someone has recently inhaled or ingested the chemical, a medical test won’t yield any results.”
But Joyce’s husband, Severn Willis, thinks it’s likely that local residents have recently breathed in some hexavalent chromium particles. Driving by the PPG site one hot day last August, Severn recalled seeing some young adults and teenagers sweeping the sidewalk and pulling weeds from the grass surrounding the site. As they swept, dust and dirt rose into the air. Severn called Joyce, and Joyce called the police.
The police report indicates that the young people working were a part of a work-employment program run by the city who had been assigned to clean up the
sidewalk and grassy area that surrounds the site. Once police confirmed that chromium posed a dangerous condition, the work was stopped. According to the police report, a representative from the Jersey City Incinerator Authority, who had arranged for the maintenance, told police that chromium is not airborne, and that workers and residents were in no danger.
McCabe said he doubts high levels of hexavalent chromium were present where the teenagers were cleaning. While the site had not been fully remediated, it was capped many years ago to prevent high levels of chromium from escaping the site.
However, McCabe added that he sympathizes with residents like Joyce and Severn Willis. “The public fear is real. We have to address it and answer as many questions as possible. The people who live here didn’t ask to have a toxic site dropped in their neighborhood, and they’ve been waiting a very long time to have the situation addressed. All I can do is promise to answer everyone’s questions…and that I will make sure that the site is cleaned up to a level that is protective of human health.”
But what is an acceptable level, and who will define what is “protective”? The three groups suing PPG over how to remediate the Garfield Avenue site question whether adhering to New Jersey’s standards is, in fact, sufficient to protect human health.
“New studies show that New Jersey’s standards for containing and cleaning up chromium are not good enough,” said Nancy Marks, council for the NRDC. Current state standards allow 20 parts per million of hexavalent chromium to be left in the soil. “The new studies show that only 1 ppm should be left in the ground,” she said, “so we’ve petitioned the state.”
Scientists at the DEP recommended that the state adopt these new standards, but the acting commissioner, Mark Mauriello, has yet to decide. Thomas Cozzi, a spokesperson for the DEP, said that the review-process takes at least a year. “A decision may be available in 2011,” he said, “but first we must study background levels—how much chromium would be here naturally.” It would be almost impossible and unfair, he explained, “to reduce levels below that.”
Jersey City’s councilman, Bill Matsikoudis, agreed with the DEP. He said: “The settlement is the best way to achieve the goal of a safe and expeditious remediation of Garfield Avenue and other PPG sites that will unlock them for positive use that will benefit the community.”
A redevelopment proposal for the area surrounding 900 Garfield Avenue has already begun. Once the site is clean, commercial and residential units will sit atop the formerly-contaminated site. According to the plans, all new buildings constructed will be LEED certified to ensure that they are water and energy efficient and the construction of the buildings has a low environmental impact.
But for many residents who have lived near Garfield Avenue for years, talk of a green future is cold comfort compared to the site’s toxic green past.
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