Philadelphia Inquirer (pg. A1), August 20, 2006


By Sam Wood, Jan Hefler and Troy Graham

Less than a mile from the mercury-contaminated Kiddie Kollege day-care center in Gloucester County, a second day-care was operating on another polluted site with ties to the same real estate company, officials confirmed last week.

About 55 small children had attended the Through the Years day-care center, which operated for four years on the site of a former heating- oil company in Franklin Township. Through the Years abruptly moved to another location on June 30."I wasn't aware that this was once a petroleum company," said Christine Dougherty, whose two young children attended the day-care for a year. "We were told it closed because there were new owners and that the day-care would be located in a new facility. It was not moved for any hazardous reason."

The site has not been sold, and an attorney for the property owner, Charles Nevins of Maryland, said the day-care was asked to leave so an environmental cleanup could begin.

The revelation of a second day-care on a toxic site in the same rural township raises questions about how many of the state's 7,000 day- cares could be sitting on contaminated property. A third toxic day- care was discovered last week in Toms River.

The discoveries also bolster critics, who say New Jersey does a poor job tracking its 14,000 contaminated properties, including many that have sat vacant for years.

Through the Years was located in the building that once served as the office for McCandless Petroleum Co., which sold home heating oil. McCandless Petroleum, a 4.42-acre site that had four buildings, is listed by the state Department of Environmental Protection as one of New Jersey's contaminated sites.

The property was listed in 2001 because of "an uncontrolled discharge to the soil and/or groundwater," according to the DEP.

"At this point we don't know what the contaminant is," DEP spokeswoman Elaine Makatura said. "We're scrambling to get what we can."

Mitchell H. Kizner, the attorney for the property owner, said there were "petroleum hydrocarbons, mostly heating oil" and cancer-causing PCBs at the site. He said the owner hired a consultant to test the building that housed the day-care in 2003, and the results "showed no difficulties." The results were sent to the DEP and other government agencies, he said.

Through the Years occupied a space at the Fellowship Faith Ministries Church, which began renting the vacant McCandless office building about five years ago, according to township officials.

Jim Sullivan Jr. is the church chairman. His son, Jim Sullivan III, is a church officer. Sullivan Jr. runs the company that owns the former Accutherm thermometer factory, where the Kiddie Kollege day-care had operated. His son helped acquire that property.

Fellowship Faith Ministries allowed the day-care to use the church building rent-free, according to Jeanne Przelomiec, listed on records as a senior officer of the day-care. She wouldn't answer questions about the contamination. An attorney for the church, Tara Vargo, did not return phone calls Friday.

Breathing petroleum vapors can cause headache, nausea, dizziness and respiratory irritation, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. PCBs can affect the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, endocrine system and cause cancer, the EPA says.

McCandless operated its heating-oil company at the Delsea Drive site until 1989.

A spokesman for Conshohocken-based company said former owner Charles Nevins sold the company in September and moved to Maryland, but retained ownership of the Franklin Township site.

A woman who answered the phone at Nevins' Maryland home referred questions to Kizner, a Cherry Hill attorney who has written extensively about environmental cleanups and owner liability.

Kizner said Faith Fellowship and the day-care were informed that the site was contaminated -- even if the building they proposed to use had been cleared.

"We gave them memos to notify the parents. I'm assuming they told the parents. They put some kind of barrier behind the playground and the balance of the facility. They obviously wanted to keep the kids off that area," Kizner said. "This is different from the former thermometer factory. There was full disclosure here."

Behind the day-care's fenced playground is a landscape of dirt and grass, much of it covered with sheets of black plastic.

Neither Jim Sullivan Jr. nor Jim Sullivan III would comment this week. Their attorney, Richard Hluchan, said he knew nothing about the role of the Sullivans in the church or the Thorough the Years day-care.

Gov. Corzine has ordered a team of cabinet members to examine day-care safety as a result of the Kiddie Kollege scandal. The group will cross-reference New Jersey's contaminated sites list with every day- care in the state, his office said.

Last week, the DEP asked another day-care center, the Ultimate Scholar in Toms River, to shut down because of elevated levels of toxic chemicals. The day-care is in a strip mall that includes a dry- cleaning business that was added to the state's list of contaminated sites in 2004.

The governor's order came in response to the discovery that Kiddie Kollege had been operating for two years in the abandoned thermometer factory. The state Attorney General's Office also launched a criminal investigation into the Kiddie Kollege scandal.

Kiddie Kollege voluntarily closed July 28. Testing on more than 60 children and adults found about one-third had levels of mercury higher than the general public, but state health officials said they didn't expect long-term effects.

"We have roughly 7,000 day-cares listed.... The commissioners of many departments are working together to come up with an outline and a plan," said DEP's Makatura. "We're going out to the sites to see if there have been any use changes we weren't informed of."

DEP critics have been bashing the agency since the Kiddie Kollege case exploded. They say the agency does a poor job of monitoring and cleaning up contaminated sites -- particularly so-called orphan sites, where former owners have gone bankrupt.

Accutherm, the thermometer factory, went bankrupt in 1994, and the site remained untouched for a decade.

John Trela, a former DEP assistant commissioner and an environmental consultant at TRC Inc. in Millburn, N.J., said the DEP has always taken "the worst, first" when it comes to cleaning orphan sites.

"The reality is that you can't do everything with public money because there isn't enough public money," he said.

On the Kiddie Kollege matter, he said, "somebody should have caught this."

"It's everybody's job at all levels... to protect the public from people doing bad things," Trela said.

The state also has encouraged private developers who want to take over contaminated sites -- another controversial issue with environmentalists.

But proponents say the developers turn abandoned, dirty sites into occupied, clean, tax-generating buildings -- like the old RCA factory turned into the Victor lofts in Camden.

Developers should hire professional consultants to assess a polluted property, then build the cost of the cleanup into the project, said Lewis Goldshore, an environmental lawyer in Lawrenceville, N.J.

The developer then enters into an agreement with the DEP to clean the property with the agency's oversight. The Sullivans now have entered into a similar agreement to clean the Accutherm site, Hluchan said.

Builders who don't conduct "due diligence" when buying contaminated sites are engaging in "risky behavior," Goldshore said.

"If you're going to use it for a nursery for small kids, you better be damn careful," he said. "People who don't exercise caution when buying property have very little basis to complain if the property doesn't meet their expectations."

Hluchan said Jim Sullivan III wrote a letter in 2000 to the DEP, addressed, "To whom it may concern," inquiring about the Accutherm property. He did not receive a reply. The DEP says it has no record of the letter.

In 2003, when the Sullivans were considering selling the building, they hired a consultant, who asked the DEP for records on the property. The only document returned, Hluchan said, was a federal report that the Sullivans mistakenly believed said the property wasn't toxic.

So, does this constitute due diligence?

"They did what they did. That's certainly something, perhaps, that might be judged down the road," Hluchan said. "I think under the current standards, what they did might pass muster. They did what they thought was reasonable."

Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 856-779-3838 or

Is Your Day-Care Toxic?

To check whether a property has a history of pollution, check New Jersey's Known Contaminated Site list on the Web site of the state Department of Environmental Protection. kcs-nj/

Pennsylvania's eMapPA allows users to locate brownfields, hazardous- waste operations, and other contaminated sites.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency's Web site maps brownfields, Superfund sites and other toxic sites.

The Parties Involved: Who Is to Blame?

Property owner Jim Sullivan Jr.: Through his attorney, he said he believed the federal Environmental Protection Agency cleared the property. He said his son, Jim Sullivan III, asked the state Department of Environmental Protection for further information in 2000, but the DEP failed to reply.

Former property owner Accutherm: Company owner Phil Giuliano has refused to comment. Accutherm declared bankruptcy in 1994, and Giuliano moved to Virginia.

DEP: Listed the property as a contaminated site and directed Accutherm to clean the property in 1994. DEP says it has no record of Sullivan's 2000 letter inquiring about the property. DEP also says it told Franklin Township officials in 2003 not to allow the property to be converted into a day-care.

Franklin Township: Officials said the DEP never informed them that Accutherm remained a contaminated site. The zoning officer, Bob Errera, said he delayed granting a permit for Kiddie Kollege until Sullivan brought him a federal EPA document that appeared to say the building was safe. Errera has since said he wasn't qualified to interpret the document. Mayor David Ferrucci said township officials were never warned by the DEP in 2003 about the property.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: The DEP asked the agency to assess the property in 1996. The EPA concluded that Accutherm wasn't polluted enough for a federally funded cleanup. Though EPA's report said "the site does not present an immediate threat to human health or the environment," an agency spokesman said the report wasn't meant to suggest that the property was safe for human occupancy.

Copyright (c) 2006 The Philadelphia Inquirer