With toxic plant ready for demolition, NJ residents voice concerns

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GARFIELD, N.J. - The E.C. Electroplating plant - the source of a nearly 30 year-old toxic chromium spill currently wending its way beneath this town - will be torn down in early October. But as the chromium plume continues to spread, residents voiced their concerns to the EPA and city council about potential disruption and further contamination.

At a September 10 public meeting held by the city council, board of education, and EPA officials, residents inquired about the health risks posed by the planned demolition, and exactly how the cleanup process would continue after the building is torn down. Also present were members of the neighborhood watchdog group U.R.G.E.N.T. Garfield, who protested the initial lack of action on the part of the city, which caused the widespread contamination in the first place and forced the EPA to declare Garfield a Superfund site.

The biggest fear was that dust might be kicked up by the demolition, causing any chromium inside the structure to become airborne. That concern was particularly important because the plant sits half a block away from an elementary school. EPA officials said they "wouldn't be coming in with a wrecking ball," and that particulate matter would be kept to a minimum.

"This is going to be very controlled," stated EPA on-scene coordinator Neil Norrell. "This is going to be a pick-it-apart kind of demolition." He added, "From the street level up, the building is primarily uncontaminated. So when the demolition happens, we're primarily dealing with regular construction debris and steel."

The EPA will also set up 10 air monitoring stations around the affected zone, and assured residents that the building would be taken apart slowly and carefully, beginning as soon as October 1.

But that did little to quell citizens' concern and displeasure, given the history of the incident. Over the years, the chromium poisoned the basements of nearly two dozen homes and businesses, a senior citizen building, and a fire station (which needed to be closed down due to the toxicity). Recent news caused even more panic: The chromium has now seeped into the nearby Passaic River. EPA officials, however, have said that the levels there are too low to be a threat at this time.

"Why didn't you do this [demolition] in the summer when kids weren't in school?" asked Cathy Lum, the mother of a third-grader who attends the nearby elementary school.

Officials replied that they were busy preparing the building at that time and removing from it some several hundred drums of hazardous material - some that were smoking and could not even initially be identified. The buckets of waste had been carelessly left there when the plant owners officially closed the facility in 2009.

Once the plant is demolished, officials said, workers would be able to get to the pool of highly concentrated chromium beneath it, which continues to feed into the groundwater and exacerbate the problem.

"The sooner we can get the building down," said city manager Tom Duch, "the sooner we can get to the contaminated soil, the sooner we can get to a full cleanup."

A Grand Street resident named Janina said her family had bought a house near the plant in 1987, not knowing about the chromium. Years later, hers was one of the homes identified as being infected with the chemical. Her daughter was diagnosed with leukemia two years ago - an illness Janina links directly to the chromium. Now she struggles to pay medical bills that keep piling up.

"I kept the kids' toys in the basement," she recalled. "Nobody knew."

Though the Obama administration's EPA took the reigns in 2010, working to fix the disaster, the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection was in charge prior to that, and they, residents say, are to blame. When the chromium first leaked in 1983, DEP officials stopped their efforts after just 30 percent of the spill had been recovered, resulting in almost three decades of slow poisoning of this working class, Italian-Polish community.

Though Duch applauded the EPA's efforts thus far, remarking, "Hundreds of drums of waste have already been removed from the site without any impact to the public," he criticized the DEP's inaction. "The EPA can't say this, but I'm going to say this as city manager: [The DEP] failed us. Big time."

Photo: Members of U.R.G.E.N.T. Garfield demonstrate at a public meeting held by the city council, board of education, and EPA on September 10. S.P. Sullivan/NJ.com

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