Trenton — Children played baseball and rode bicycles for years amidst mounds of dangerous toxic waste but state officials who knew of the danger did nothing to warn or protect them, according to records released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). For more than four years, officials of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Bergen Tool, Inc. have been quietly negotiating cleanup requirements for a closed factory in Hackettstown while unaware children and other residents played, biked and walked on the toxic waste piles.
The soil at the former Bergen Machine & Tool factory contains dangerous levels of a human carcinogen called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), as well as PCBs, volatile organic compounds, lead, chromium, arsenic and other pollutants above the Department’s soil cleanup criteria. The site is right next to a residential neighborhood, whose children routinely enter to play on a ball field and ride bikes on the waste piles. Children can easily enter abandoned buildings on the site which also is honeycombed with underground storage tanks and pipes.
“What part of environmental protection does DEP not understand?” asked New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, who brought the status of the site to light. “I wish this sort of debacle was an anomaly but it is one of a parade of horror stories showing how our toxic cleanup laws and policies are broken.”
Wolfe’s file review and June 23, 2007 site visit revealed that –
· The company claims (with no supporting data) that DEP approved “no further investigation” for the ball field, meaning there is no soil sampling or clean up for the ball field where children play;
· There were no hazard warnings posted or fences restricting access to the toxic waste piles and;
· DEP has taken no enforcement action to compel cleanup or informed the community about what is on the site.
For the past century, the site has been used for various heavy industrial manufacturing purposes. Since 1950, Bergen Machine & Tool operated its factory until it closed in 2003. Under state law, the company is supposed to submit a cleanup plan to DEP. But, after four years, the company has yet to complete a site characterization report – the first step in the cleanup process.
“Bergen Tool walked away and left the community at risk but, even worse, DEP failed to enforce cleanup laws designed to protect the community from exactly this kind of irresponsible corporate behavior,” Wolfe added. “Incredibly, DEP let the company claim the toxic mounds were only ‘sand piles’ and that the PAHs were ‘due to the use of motorbikes on the piles.’”
In a letter, New Jersey PEER called upon DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson to take immediate steps to post warning signs and erect fences, test the ball field and other recreation areas, sample nearby residents’ yards and homes for off-site migration and finally begin to enforce toxic pollution laws so that the company conducts a full and permanent cleanup. In response, a DEP case manager verbally informed Wolfe yesterday that DEP had ordered the company to post signs and put up fences.
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability.