Groundwater contaminated with hexavalent chromium from a former electroplating plant located at 125 Clark Street, has seeped into area basements in the surrounding community. Hexavalent chromium is extremely toxic and can cause cancer and other serious health impacts, including kidney and liver damage.
When groundwater contaminated by hexavalent chromium evaporates, it can leave behind chromium crystals, which can then adhere to the skin and be accidentally ingested by people. The EPA has inspected over 500 homes in Garfield and remediated 14 basements and has an ongoing program of assessing and remediating basements.
“The EPA has taken action to address a serious toxic problem in a residential area in Garfield, N.J,” said EPA Regional Administrator Judith A. Enck. “Because the company that created the toxic problem is no longer in business, the EPA will spend $37 million in tax dollars from our Superfund program to deal with this toxic legacy. The situation in Garfield illustrates the need for a well-funded federal Superfund program, something that is not currently in place.”
The EPA’s plan requires a combination of cleanup measures to address the problem in the long term, including treatment of the contaminated groundwater with a non-hazardous additive that will reduce the contamination, and restrictions on the use of the groundwater.
The site consists of the E.C. Electroplating property and chromium-contaminated groundwater that extends a half-mile west from the property to the Passaic River. In December 1983, 3,640 gallons of chromic acid spilled from an underground tank at the now defunct E.C. Electroplating property and contaminated the groundwater. From 1983 to 2009, the electroplating plant continued to operate as the chemical contaminated the factory building, soil, and groundwater in the area.
In 2010, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the N.J. Department of Health concluded that hexavalent chromium exposure in Garfield is a public health hazard, primarily if people are exposed to chromium dust in basements. In 2011, the EPA put the site on the federal Superfund list.
Since then the EPA has spent $5 million at this site by addressing the immediate concerns from hexavalent chromium seeping into area basements. The EPA has demolished the factory building, removed 5,700 tons of chromium-contaminated soil, 1,150 tons of concrete, 600 cubic yards of debris, 325 drums of hazardous waste and 6,100 gallons of polluted water from the E.C. Electroplating property. Through this effort, the EPA has addressed the source of the contamination originating from the former plant. The EPA conducted an in-depth investigation of the extent of the groundwater contamination and conducted a pilot study to determine how best to clean up groundwater over the long term.
The EPA will use multiple cleanup strategies at the site:
- The EPA will continue cleaning up basements when contamination is detected. Cleanup of basements includes washing basement floors and walls to remove hexavalent chromium and applying sealants, installing drains and sump pumps, when necessary, to prevent recontamination of basement surfaces.
- Within the area that is the source of the contamination, the EPA will consider applying non-hazardous additives to the groundwater that will convert the highly toxic hexavalent form of chromium into the far less toxic and less mobile form of chromium called trivalent chromium. The specific types of additives to be used will be determined by the EPA as part of the design of the cleanup. Also, a system of pumps will be used to bring the polluted groundwater to the surface where it can be cleaned.
- Outside the area that is the source of the contamination, the EPA will consider applying non-hazardous additives to the groundwater to promote the breakdown of the pollutants. The specific process to be used to inject the additives will be determined by the EPA as part of the design of the project. Once the process has begun, the EPA will collect samples to confirm that the treatment is effective.
- The EPA will periodically collect and analyze groundwater samples to verify that the level and extent of contaminants are declining and that people’s health and the environment are protected.
- The groundwater will be monitored and restrictions will be put in place to restrict the use of groundwater from the site until the cleanup goals are met. The EPA will conduct a review every five years to ensure the effectiveness of the cleanup.
To read the final EPA cleanup plan, called a record of decision, please visit: http://www.epa.gov/superfund/garfield-groundwater
To link directly to the record of decision, visit: https://semspub.epa.gov/src/document/02/377072
A Neighborhood in Peril: Dangerous chromium spreads through Garfield groundwater
By SCOTT FALLON
STAFF WRITER |
A highly toxic industrial chemical has been spreading under a Garfield neighborhood for almost three decades, slowly seeping into homes and threatening the health of thousands.
Contractors testing the contents of abandoned industrial drums stored at the closed E.C. Electroplating site in Garfield last month.
Residents live in fear that hexavalent chromium is infiltrating their basements, that their families could get cancer and that their property values have been destroyed.
And state officials allowed it all to happen.
What occurred in Garfield over the course of 28 years is a story of an environmental oversight system that failed the people it was supposed to protect. In instance after instance, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection showed poor judgment, lax enforcement and bureaucratic indifference to an emerging public health threat.
Three tons of cancer-causing chromium leaked from a tank at the E.C. Electroplating plant on Clark Street in 1983. Despite evidence that it was migrating under an entire neighborhood, the DEP let the company stop the cleanup after just 30 percent had been recovered.
"The expense of such an effort might not be justified by the result," DEP Principal Environmental Specialist John DeFina wrote in a May 1985 letter to E.C.’s attorney. Because there were no wells for drinking water in the area, DeFina and others concluded "there is no threat to the public health."
Today, this neighborhood of 600 homes and businesses is New Jersey’s newest Superfund site. Federal officials have warned residents that the contamination in their homes poses "a significant threat" to their health.
The DEP "dragged their feet," said Jennie Coulter, whose Grand Street house was contaminated. "They could have solved this 20, 30 years ago. Now I won’t go down to my basement until a man from the government puts his hand on the Bible and says everything is safe."
The Record spent months investigating the spill, reviewing hundreds of DEP documents. It found:
* Engineers reported early on that the chromium had migrated underground from the E.C. plant toward the Passaic River, but nobody at the DEP or the company mentioned the hundreds of homes and businesses that stood between the plant and the river.
* The initial investigation was deeply flawed. Monitoring and recovery wells were drilled at the factory site — but not in the neighborhood — and the first wells were dug far too shallow for engineers to be able to reach the bulk of the chromium.
* Four months after the spill, high levels of chromium were found in E.C.’s basement after a heavy rain — but this didn’t trigger any action to prevent that pollution from seeping into other basements.
* A decade later, chromium was discovered in a firehouse a mile away — and despite this evidence that the chemical had spread, no testing was done in the neighborhood.
* Years went by without the DEP checking on the site. For instance, it took four years for the state to notice that E.C. was not testing its monitoring wells for chromium, even though the company was supposed to file regular reports with the DEP.
Now, almost 30 years after the spill, teams of men in hazmat gear are a common sight in the neighborhood. The contamination has been found in an apartment building, in homes and in stores. In one basement, the chromium pollution exceeded the federal safety standard by 2,500 times.
North Jersey has a history of failed cleanups, including a Superfund site in Ringwood that was declared clean when it was still polluted. But Garfield has the awful distinction of being one of the few places in America where an entire neighborhood sits atop a Superfund site. It didn’t have to be this way, regulators said.
"Clearly it would have been good had [the DEP] been looking at this site 20, 30 years ago in a more aggressive way," said Walter Mugdan, who oversees the Garfield cleanup for the federal Environmental Protection Agency. It could cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars to clean up the neighborhood.
State environmental officials recently admitted to The Record that the DEP failed in Garfield. Assistant Commissioner David Sweeney called the case a "poster child" for mismanagement.
"It’s clear that when this case was being handled, I don’t think the right decisions were made," said Sweeney, who oversees site cleanups. "It wasn’t handled with the urgency that it needed."
In a recent interview, E.C.’s attorney, Dennis Krumholz, disputed the EPA’s claim that the company was the main source of the contamination. Chromium was used at several industrial facilities in Garfield over the years.
Krumholz also said the company "went to great lengths" to comply with the DEP.
"They were good corporate citizens," he said. "They always had the best interests of Garfield at heart in everything they did."
Like many towns along the Passaic River, Garfield exploded with textile mills, chemical plants and other industry in the early 20th century. It was a factory town with workers living in modest homes built, in some cases, right next to the plants.
A home that once sat on a large parcel of land at 125 Clark St. was eventually replaced by chicken coops and, later, a machine shop. In 1935, Edward Calderio opened E.C. Electroplating at the address. There, a small band of workers went about the often dangerous task of chemically plating copper and chromium onto machine parts so they would last longer. The company, which would pass down through generations of the family, became a successful small business, serving clients from the plastic, paper and film industries.
Chrome plating can be done using two types of chromium — trivalent and hexavalent. Both provide excellent resistance to corrosion. Hexavalent — which is cheaper but far more toxic — became the chromium of choice at E.C.
At 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 14, 1983, a tank outside the factory was close to capacity with about 7,280 gallons of chromium plating solution.
Around 2 a.m. the following morning, the tank was found to have lost half its contents — 3,640 gallons. An inspection would later reveal that a flange had broken, causing the solution to leak into the ground for hours. Computations would show that 5,560 pounds of the chemical, also known as chromium 6, had spilled.
E.C. alerted city officials and the DEP that day.
The DEP’s role was to gauge the extent of contamination, approve a cleanup plan and make sure the work was done.
The department would fail on all three counts.
Over several months in 1984, E.C.’s contractors pumped 85,000 gallons of contaminated groundwater from beneath the site and hauled it away. But only 30 percent of the hexavalent chromium was recovered, state records show.
That spring, heavy rains caused a problem on the E.C. property that would eventually plague the neighborhood: Chromium-contaminated groundwater seeped into the basement, according to a letter from E.C.’s contractors to the company’s lawyer.
E.C.’s engineers reported to the DEP in January 1985 that test wells showed the chromium was migrating into the neighborhood, documents reveal.
The revelation didn’t trigger any testing of the homes next to the plant or at the 350-student elementary school a half-block away.
Instead, the company asked the DEP to allow it to end the cleanup.
"We believe that E.C. Electroplating has taken all appropriate steps to deal responsibly with this situation and we are eager to put this matter to rest," the company’s attorney, Krumholz, wrote to the DEP in January 1985.
E.C. Electroplating submitted a report that said most of the chromium had moved beyond the plant through the bedrock toward the Passaic River. But the report’s authors at Princeton Aqua Science said they couldn’t tell the exact pathway of the chromium because the monitoring wells weren’t deep enough.
"Clearly, rapid contamination migration is possible," the report stated.
Although maps of the area were provided in the report, nowhere did it mention the densely packed neighborhood of hundreds of homes and retail businesses that stood between the E.C. plant and the river.
The DEP decided the cleanup could stop.
"Little additional recovery is possible without a major effort," DeFina, the DEP environmental specialist, wrote.
"Presently the upper aquifer appears clean, there is no threat to the public health, no private or public wells in the immediate area."
No red flags were raised even though 70 percent of the chromium was still missing. There was no mention of the shallow monitoring wells. No talk of whether the groundwater that contaminated E.C.’s basement could also infiltrate homes.
By the end of 1985, two things were certain about the E.C. spill:
Almost 4,000 pounds of the dangerous chemical was still unaccounted for, coursing its way under Garfield.
And no one was planning to do anything about it.
It took the DEP four years to check back on E.C. Electroplating.
During that time, none of the wells at the site had been tested, as required. No well logs had been kept.
A DEP investigator noted in June 1989 that the company had ignored the DEP’s plan. But records show the DEP didn’t do anything about it.
And so everything continued. E.C. kept plating rollers and screws. The contamination continued to move under the neighborhood.
In the spring of 1993, firefighters at Fire Company 3 on Willard Street noticed greenish water seeping into the basement during heavy rainstorms.
The city took samples and found it contained 250 times the level the state considered safe for chromium.
A decade after the spill, here was evidence the contamination had spread: The firehouse was located nearly a mile from E.C. Electroplating.
The city immediately sealed the basement. Weeks later, amid concerns about the potential health hazard, the firehouse was boarded up. It remains so today.
The DEP told city officials that if they wanted the firehouse cleaned up, Garfield would have to conduct, and pay for, the work. The city would also have to reimburse the DEP for reviewing the case. The city declined, with officials explaining the municipal government could not afford it.
Despite the discovery of contamination at the firehouse, no one talked about testing the many homes between the plant and the firehouse. The DEP merely required E.C. to sample groundwater — at its plant.
When someone finally came to test homes, it wasn’t the DEP — it was the Bergen County Department of Health.
Worried about residents living near the firehouse, County Health Official Anthony DeCandia and his team began surveying homes within a six-block radius in 2000.
They tested the basements of two homes on Palisades Avenue about a half-mile from the plant — and discovered high levels of chromium 6 in both.
In addition, crystallized residue containing very low levels of a less dangerous form of chromium was found in the basements of four other houses. Hexavalent chromium can change under certain conditions.
For the first time, the DEP considered the possibility of a public health threat.
"There may be other buildings in the city that have exhibited these problems that the NJDEP or the Bergen County Health Department does not know about," Brian Crisafulli of the Bureau of Ground Water Pollution Abatement wrote in late December 2000.
"E.C. has been progressing too slow with a potential hazardous risk to the people and environment of the City of Garfield," he wrote.
Still, it wasn’t until December 2001 — 14 months after the county Health Department made its report public — that the DEP visited and tested the two contaminated homes on Palisades Avenue.
The contamination had increased.
The DEP also began finding high levels of chromium at contaminated sites it was monitoring in Garfield that had never been polluted with the chemical. Chromium was detected in monitoring wells at an Amoco service station on Monroe Street, two blocks from the firehouse. It was also found in test wells at an auto repair shop on Midland Avenue, two blocks west of E.C.
On Sept. 19, 2002, the DEP issued a formal notice of violation to E.C.
"The slow rate of progress and lack of long term planning by E.C. Electroplating is unacceptable," a DEP memo stated.
E.C. responded immediately, denying responsibility and arguing it was unable to pay for a massive cleanup.
Faced with a polluter crying poverty and the possibility of a large-scale cleanup that could cost tens of millions of dollars, the DEP turned to the federal government.
In an Oct. 7, 2002, letter asking the EPA to take over, DEP official Janet Smolenski acknowledged what she called a "lack of progress" by her agency over the previous two decades.
"The slow progress of the case is perceived as a reluctance and failure on the part of NJDEP," Smolenski wrote. "Should the case continue down the present track, this perception shall only grow."
The pace didn’t quicken much after the feds came on board.
In January 2003, yellow dust found on the basement floor of the Golden Tower senior apartments after a flood was determined to contain hexavalent chromium as well as a less toxic form of chromium. The basement was cleaned up by contractors and a wall was caulked to keep out the groundwater.
By August, the building was contaminated again.
The 10-story building on Midland Avenue is three blocks from E.C.
It took the EPA more than a year to examine the building. Air, dust and water tests in November 2004 showed no chromium in the apartments. But samples taken four months later found contamination in the basement.
Every time the basement was cleaned up, the contamination would return. The chromium would seep into the basement via floodwater and, when the water evaporated, chromium dust was left on the floor. Some of the dust would become airborne and settle on other surfaces.
It became clear to the EPA that whenever it flooded — and it floods often in this neighborhood — chromium would find its way into Golden Tower’s basement. And if it was happening all the time at this building, what about all the other buildings in the neighborhood?
The EPA asked the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the New Jersey Department of Health to review the case and its potential risk to the community.
Meanwhile, E.C. Electroplating was faltering financially. After the DEP issued a notice to E.C. for failure to pay $9,200 in oversight costs, the company’s president, Anthony Calderio, sent a letter to the state in August 2008, saying the company was "experiencing a cash flow problem of catastrophic proportions.
"We have always tried to put our best foot forward at all times to comply with the DEP," he wrote.
The next month, the EPA began surveying the neighborhood. Within days, contamination was found in three basements.
On March 3, 2009, E.C. Electroplating quietly closed its doors after 74 years, according to a report from its engineer, Richard Chapin. Joshua Gradwohl, a DEP site-remediation supervisor, e-mailed Chapin expressing concerns that a "lack of funding may again be used to stall any investigations."
Chapin fired back. "It is a bit disconcerting that you’ve chosen to use terms such as ‘stall’ and ‘routinely used to delay’ in your last e-mail … you must understand it was never a matter of stalling or delaying anything" Chapin wrote. "It was a matter of what the company could afford to do given their financial resources.
"Can you spent [sic] hundreds of thousands of dollars you don’t have and have no prospect of earning because your business, the source of cash to fund that work, is slowly being destroyed by fundamental changes in the economy of the State of New Jersey?" he wrote.
Meanwhile, the investigation of the neighborhood continued. Harmful levels of chromium had now been found in 13 homes.
In one alarming instance, EPA investigators found contamination that was 2,500 times the federal safety standard for chromium on the basement stairs of a building near Midland Avenue and Grand Street that housed a retail business and apartments.
Within days, a team of EPA workers began cleaning up the building’s basement. The wooden staircase was torn down and replaced. All surfaces were washed down. Sump pumps were installed to prevent flooding and walls were painted to add a barrier of protection.
In 2010, the ATSDR took the rare step of issuing a public health warning for the neighborhood and recommended that the area be placed on the Superfund list. "We consider the site a serious threat to human health," wrote Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the ATSDR.
Twenty-seven years after the spill, the government told the people in the neighborhood: Stay out of your basement because it presents "an immediate and significant threat" to your health.
The extent of the contamination is worse than envisioned in any of the documents.
It is deeper than first believed, according to EPA scientists. And they now think the 1983 spill was only part of the story, and that chromium may have been leaking from the plant for years.
"What we suspect now … is that, in fact, that there were frequent leaks or stuff was dumped down drains," said Mugdan, head of the EPA’s Superfund cleanup for New Jersey and New York. "We have reason to believe this had been a messy operation for some time."
E.C. Electroplating contends it is not solely to blame for the chromium pollution in the neighborhood. As evidence that some other factory may have polluted the area, Chapin points out that a city drinking well on Willard Street was closed off in the mid-1960s because of chromium contamination from a source that was never determined. Chromium 6 was used at other facilities in the area, including a tannery and at least one other electroplating company.
Krumholz, E.C.’s attorney, said the company was "an easy target" because of the spill.
While the EPA is looking into the possibility of other sources for the contamination, Mugdan said the focus is on E.C.
When the EPA got access to the E.C. Electroplating property in August, they found an environmental mess.
Almost 1,000 buckets, drums and other containers were discovered at the site, filled with liquid and other substances the agency is still trying to identify. Seven large mixing vats were still partially full. Drums labeled as hazardous waste from when the plant closed in 2009 were found — long past their 90-day limit for removal and disposal, an EPA official said.
In April, firefighters and a hazmat team had been called to the site after water leaked from the roof into a 5-gallon bucket of concentrated acid, causing it to smoke.
The EPA is testing to make sure the chromium hasn’t spread further.
Federal investigators recently discovered that the chromium may be as deep as 100 feet underground.
That is too deep for a cleanup-process that has worked well at other Superfund sites, one that involves digging a ditch and placing a "permeable reactive barrier" that turns chromium 6 into non-toxic trivalent chromium.
"It’s not good news," Mugdan said of finding chromium so deep. "It’s harder to deal with. You can’t drill a trench 100, 200 feet down."
The EPA is now considering a "pump and treat" system, which would require extraction wells to siphon the contaminated groundwater to the surface. The water would then be treated at a nearby plant, which would have to be built, likely at taxpayer expense.
Until then, the EPA believes residents are at significant risk any time it rains heavily. The state Health Department analyzed its cancer registry and did not find elevated rates of disease in the area. But health officials also said it may be too soon for such cancers to have appeared and that it is difficult to track the many people who have moved away.
The Passaic River is not in danger, however, according to officials. They believe the hexavalent chromium will turn into the less toxic trivalent chromium if it reaches the river. The chemical can break down when exposed to "a more oxygenated environment," Mugdan said.
Officials contend that no one in the regulatory or scientific community knew back in the 1980s that chromium had the ability to infiltrate homes through floodwater and crystallize into a toxic dust.
Still, DEP officials admit they should have done more since the danger of hexavalent chromium was common knowledge and given how much had spilled.
"Absolutely, poor decisions were made," Sweeney said.
The DEP doesn’t have much of a role anymore in the case.
Based on other Superfund sites, it may be a decade — or more — before the neighborhood is cleaned up.
At last year’s community meeting Mugdan introduced his staff to the audience. He told the residents they’d better get to know these people "because folks, you’re going to be living with this for years."