The EPA director, our own Lisa Jackson visited one of the nation’s most notorious Superfund sites at 80 Lister Avenue on March 26, promising speedy action towards clean-up, which will be the first step for Newarkers to reclaim the Passaic riverfront.
At 11:59 a.m. on February 20, 1960, a huge explosion blew up the roof of the 125-by-250-foot building at 80 Lister Avenue, sending tons of toxic debris into the Passaic River and surrounding streets. Many workers had to be dug out by fire rescue squads. Soon after, Alfred Casatelli, 35, a chemical engineer, died in St. James Hospital of chemical poisoning, among many others badly injured. The chemical factory, Diamond Alkali, was about to accelerate its 24-7 production schedule to produce one million gallons of Agent Orange for the Vietnam War. By the time the factory closed its production in 1983, it left behind “a sprawling tomb” for the herbicide’s toxic byproduct, dioxin, measuring 500 parts per billion, with some samples as high as 1,200 parts per billion. (The EPA classifies a level of one part per billion as dangerous to humans.) Producing DDT at the Lister Avenue site for over 40 years, Diamond Alkali had ordered its employees “to wade out surreptitiously at low tide to chop up mounds of DDT” to avoid being detected for dumping waste into the Passaic River.
On June 4, 1983, after a chilling contamination report, Governor Kean showed up in the site with Mayor Ken Gibson to order further inspection and to close the nearby Newark Farmers Market, the largest seafood supplier in New Jersey, in addition to fresh and frozen goods for the tri-state area. A few months later, the Federal Government declared it among the first Superfund Sites. However, all politicians, reporters, and lab workers in white moonwalk outfits soon disappeared, leaving scared Ironbound residents puzzled. Governor Kean’s spokesman Carl Golden explained, “This is not the kind of thing that leads to a quick, overnight solution.” In past 27 years, the 65,000 cubic yards of polluted dirt and debris faced a few remedies, none of which led to easy solutions. According to the company, the only place for processing highly contaminated materials is in Coffeyville Kansas, with a price tag of $241 million, plus transportation, that would take seven to ten years. A second solution is on-site incineration, which successfully removed dioxin of lower concentrations (400 parts per billion) at Diamond Alkali’s other Superfund site in Times Beach, Missouri. In a more populated urban area, the two-year decontamination would cost $40 million. Not surprisingly, in 1998, the responsible corporation (Occidental Chemicals) took the third route: to “encase” the four-acre site with a floodwall and a groundwater treatment system at a cost of $22 million, the lowest-cost approach. Some additional debris was put in 932 cargo containers piled along the Passaic River. (For more details about the EPA Lower Passaic River cleanup, see www.ourpassaic.org/projectsites.)
The EPA-approved “interim solution” thereafter turned to be permanent, while the Dallas-based company went into its fast global expansion during the Golden Era of massive deregulation under the Bush Administration. The CEO, Dr. Ray Irani, has lived a high life in Beverly Hills, with a record annual earning of $460 million in 2006. (For a bad year, he made $59 million in 2009.) Meanwhile, Newark has developed “Renaissance on a garbage heap,” as Johns Hopkins University researcher Eileen McGurty has called it. The largest garbage incinerator opened in 1991 to process 930,000 tons of garbage annually. Alan Gerson, a New York City Council member representing Lower Manhattan, complained about the incinerator air: “Some of the stench and toxins could waft right back to Manhattan on an easterly wind.” In our local Jersey, struggling to dispose of municipal solid garbage, the state and the county tried to entice Newark to allow more incinerators by throwing in an employment opportunity – a jail, also in the Ironbound. As adjunct law professor of Seton Hall University Tirza Wahrman observed, “Another thing going on here is New Jerseyans don’t feel a sense of ownership about Newark.”
This typical urban American story will not be completed without mentioning its heroes. With some other enduring Ironbound residents, a young man Arnold Cohen started the Ironbound Committee Against Toxic Waste in 1983. Among many heroic “pushing-backs,” the committee sued the State DEP for its negligent inaction in 1984. In the past three decades, his daughter has been born and has recently left home to attend Princeton University, while his hair turned grey at the age of 62. I hope that my little Newarker daughter will some day join Arnold’s daughter to carry the Committee’s battle for a just and clean America.