Infrastructure money to finance cleanup

After years with a cleanup plan in limbo, a contaminated groundwater plume that sits beneath a Garfield neighborhood and remains a threat to infiltrate basements will begin to be dealt with with federal bill money on infrastructure recently adopted.

But there is only enough money to fund about a third of the project, federal environment officials said this week.

The project will focus on water with the highest concentrations of carcinogenic hexavalent chromium found beneath the former EC electroplating plant on Clark Street – an “orphan” Superfund site that has remained largely dormant for years. Taxpayer money is needed for a cleanup because there is no deep-pocketed polluter to pay.

Almost 40 years ago, an accident at the family business caused thousands of gallons of chromium solution to spill into the ground and migrate under neighboring houses. The remaining unfunded two-thirds of the project would clean up groundwater further from the site under the houses.

Garfield is one of 49 sites nationwide, including six more in New Jersey, that were earmarked for the $ 1 billion infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden last month to “absorb the backlog of… previously unfunded Superfund sites and speeding up cleanup at dozens of other sites across the country, ”according to the Federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Parts of Garfield were designated as a Superfund site in 2011 by the Environmental Protection Agency.

EPA officials would not say publicly how much money the site will receive from the infrastructure bill, saying it could disrupt the bidding process with contractors. But they said it would cover about a third of the cleanup, which the EPA estimated to cost $ 37 million in 2016.

United States Representative Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, who has tried to secure funding for the site over the years, said the infrastructure fund will “significantly advance” the cleanup.

“If more funds are needed to complete the remediation of this orphan site, we will continue to fight to make our communities whole and clean,” he said.

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A long-awaited cleaning

The first phase of the project funded by the Infrastructure Bill provides for the injection of emulsified vegetable oil through 20 to 30 wells at the plant site which would break down the dangerous hexavalent chromium into its less toxic cousin, chromium. trivalent.

Plan designs are 60% complete and are expected to be completed within three months. Work would begin in six to eight months, said Rich Puvogel, who oversees the cleanup for the EPA.

An aerial view of the Garfield Groundwater Contamination Superfund Site, located in a residential area of ​​Garfield.

The highest reading for chromium is in the water under the old plant, which was demolished in 2012. Levels have reached 180 parts per billion. The EPA’s goal is to get it down below 70 parts per billion, Puvogel said.

Two parts of the clean-up are still expected to be funded. The first calls for wells to be drilled in the neighborhood so that the EPA can target contaminated water under homes with vegetable oil or a similar non-toxic substance to break down the chromium. A second long-term component would clean up contaminated groundwater buried deep in the bedrock by eventually pumping it to the surface and treating it in a facility built on site.

It would take two years to build the pumping system and more than 30 years to clean up the water once funding is secured and the pumping system is up and running, EPA officials said.

The water under the houses contains less chromium, and the treatment works planned on the site of the old factory should make it possible to further lower these levels. But chromium is still a threat if it seeps into basements during flooding.

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A long history of pollution

The pollution dates back to 1983, when 3,640 gallons of chromium solution spilled into the ground from an EC Electroplating tank, a small facility that bonded chrome plating to machine parts.

In 1985, even though only 30 percent of the metal solution had been recovered, the state’s Environmental Protection Department allowed the company to stop the clean-up efforts. At the time, agency officials said there was “no threat to public health” despite evidence that chromium was migrating to the Passaic River under the neighborhood in the southwestern corner of the river. city.

Remediation work in 2014 at the former EC electroplating plant in Garfield.

Chromium seeped into basements for decades during heavy torrential rains that pushed the water table closer to the surface. As the waters receded, the chrome crystallized into a fine powder, throwing up the basement walls.

Hexavalent chromium has been shown to cause lung cancer and other respiratory ailments in workers who constantly inhale the metal. No illness among residents has been officially linked to the contamination – something that is difficult to prove without a large comprehensive health study. It is even more difficult in a transitional neighborhood made up mainly of new immigrants who are tenants rather than owners.

Since 2011, the EPA has spent approximately $ 5 million on the site to dispose of thousands of tonnes of contaminated soil. Contractors also siphoned off 6,100 gallons of contaminated groundwater and removed 5,700 tonnes of soil and 1,150 tonnes of concrete.

The EPA inspected 500 basements, 14 of which were contaminated with high levels of chromium and had to be cleaned. EPA officials said this week that they had not received any recent requests from residents for inspections.

Scott Fallon has covered the COVID-19 pandemic since its onset in March 2020. To get unlimited access to the latest news regarding the pandemic’s impact on New Jersey, please register or activate your digital account today.

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