The Record (Hackensack, N.J.), April 1, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: For more than 25 years government officials, in cahoots with highly-paid consultants, have pretended that "capping" old garbage dumps and toxic waste sites renders them "safe." Now a major New Jersey newspaper has begun to reveal the truth: this emperor has never been wearing any clothes.]

By Alex Nussbaum

Condos in Edgewater. High-rises in North Bergen. Schools in Paterson.

All sitting atop toxic chemicals.

Separated, in most cases, by a few feet of dirt, inches of asphalt or a thin plastic liner.

In North Jersey, this is the new definition of clean: Thousands of people living, working and playing on properties where pollution has been "capped" -- buried under pavement or dirt rather than removed.

As many as 540 sites statewide have been capped. More are on the drawing board ready to sprout million-dollar town houses, senior citizen complexes, strip malls and office buildings.

Developers love caps because they save millions when they don't have to dig up contamination and haul it away.

But caps also raise sticky questions: Is life atop a toxic tomb safe? Could chemical vapors seep out of the ground? Who'll make sure no one sticks a shovel in the wrong spot, unleashing poisons through the simple act of planting a tree?

And if they did, who would know? New Jersey has one inspector -- the "cap cop" -- to check these sites.

Environmentalists have long maligned caps as "pave and wave" for what they say is the shoddy quality of the cleanups. Now, state officials are also concerned.

"Many would argue that... the quality of the remediation is poor," the state's environmental commissioner, Lisa Jackson, told a committee of state legislators last fall, "and that developers pursue the cheapest solutions in order to quickly get a profit."

More than 120 sites in North Jersey are capped. The list includes The Promenade and City Place, a mix of tony condominiums, rental apartments and shops built above arsenic and asbestos deposits along Edgewater's waterfront. It includes the parking lot of the Lowe's superstore in East Rutherford. And Half-Moon Harbor, a luxury apartment tower along the Hudson in North Bergen.

The mother of all capping projects may be the EnCap development in the Meadowlands, where 500 acres of leaky landfills are being transformed into a 2,600-unit luxury golf community.

Homes, fairways and a hotel will sit atop a cap of construction debris, dredged material from New York Harbor and clean fill. Beneath that cover: a stew of trash, chemicals and whatever else was buried in the sprawling dumps.

"A toxic layer cake" sneers Jeff Tittel, director of the state Sierra Club.

State officials said they knew of no caps that had failed in New Jersey. But environmentalists worry the practice is so new that nobody knows how long caps will last or if they'll break and endanger the public. Irene Kropp, an assistant environmental commissioner, acknowledges the risks: If not maintained, soil erodes; parking lots crack.

But critics aren't just worried about what's sitting atop a cap. Underground pollution can vaporize and spread to buildings on neighboring properties, they warn.

Lax oversight compounds the problem, the critics say. Property owners are supposed to inspect and certify the integrity of their caps every other year. But last year, just one-fifth filed reports, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Even some of the private engineers who help design caps say the system needs to be improved.

"People need to know that the certification process is real and serious and that you have the hammer if they don't comply," said Jorge Berkowitz, an associate at Elmwood Park-based Langan Engineering, a consultant to cleanups statewide.

Expanded use

Caps have long been used to entomb trash in landfills. But they've become common features below housing developments and schools in recent years, a product of loosened regulations and a push to redevelop industrial properties.

The barriers may include high-tech geosynthetic liners to trap pollution underground. But caps are more likely to be a building, an asphalt parking lot or a few feet of cleaner soil.

Sometimes, the cap itself isn't clean: At EnCap, sediment dredged from the harbor and used as part of the cap is itself tainted with heavy metals and PCBs -- but those levels are supposed to be low enough to pass state regulations.

An EnCap spokeswoman said the project is far from a drive-by cleanup and that it will include a variety of safeguards. In addition to a 24- foot thick cap, the site will have gas collection systems, 11 miles of underground piping to suck up liquid toxins and a six-mile vertical wall around the property, Brittany Burkett said.

All of it will meet the state's environmental standards, she promised.

Builders and consultants say caps are safe -- and often the only economical way of getting polluted property back on the tax rolls. With New Jersey's history of heavy industry, it's unrealistic to expect every site to be restored to pristine conditions, said Berkowitz, who headed a DEP cleanup program in the 1980s.

"You can't dig up all of New Jersey and send it to Ohio," he said.

Even environmentalists like Tittel say caps have their place -- just not on sites where the public, especially children, will be spending a lot of time. The DEP commissioner said caps will remain a part of the state's cleanup options.

But in her testimony before a state Senate panel last year, Jackson said the state needs more authority over projects that put homes and schools above tainted sites.

State legislators rewrote the cleanup requirements for industrial sites in 1993, after companies, local officials and others complained the stringent rules made it prohibitively expensive to restore many properties. The changes stripped the DEP of its ability to order specific remedies -- limiting it instead to accepting or rejecting what a site owner proposes.

The result, environmental groups complain, has been a bias toward the cheapest solution -- typically, a cap.

"There's nobody looking at these things. There's nobody monitoring these things," said Bill Wolfe, director of the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "They're an invitation for something to go wrong."

The DEP's Kropp agreed inspections need to increase. "I don't think one person driving around the state is the answer," she said.

She also said the department needs to find a better way of tracking caps, so they aren't forgotten as years pass and land changes hands.

The state's fear: that someone, sometime in the future, could sink a backhoe or extend a sewer pipe in the wrong spot and open a toxic Pandora's box.

"Time goes by, property owners come and go," Kropp said. "Residents could be exposed to contamination."

More caps proposed

As officials debate the problem, builders are proposing more caps.

In Wood-Ridge, developers plan to replace Curtiss-Wright, the sprawling, long-blighted engine manufacturer, with 740 units of new housing, retail space and a school. They will haul off tons of polluted soil, but leave some in place beneath the parking lot of a planned NJ Transit train station.

In Fair Lawn, public outrage last month helped derail plans for a gated community of town homes and senior housing at the old Clariant Corp. chemical factory. Soil and water beneath the surface are streaked with cancer-causing benzene, heavy metals and PCBs -- some at levels over 100 times what the state considers safe for direct contact.

"New Jersey is already not the safest place to live," said Michael Roney, one of the local residents who fought the plan. "To have people stacked in a high-density development on top of known carcinogens in the groundwater, it doesn't seem like a good idea."

Clariant said it would have followed state cleanup requirements that protect the public. The company has been treating toxic groundwater on-site for 15 years, noted Michael Teague, its vice president for environmental safety. The development plan called for removing more tainted soil and using a new technique -- injecting hydrogen peroxide in the ground -- to destroy pollution.

Whatever was left underfoot would have been safely sealed beneath a cap, Teague said.

Likewise, officials with the state's Schools Construction Corp. say they're comfortable with their decision to finance 14 schools on capped sites around New Jersey.

The list includes three buildings in Paterson -- International High School, P.S. 24 and the PANTHER Academy, a school for science and math students. The academy opened in 2004 on the site of an old auto shop, where some soil contains heavy metals and other pollutants, said Ron Carper, the agency's program manager for environmental services. The building's foundation and 2 feet of clean soil serve as caps.

The sites have "low levels" of contamination and the caps will keep students from touching any harmful pollution, Carper said. All 14 schools, he noted, will have special ventilation systems, in case chemicals vaporize and seep into the buildings.

"A lot of work goes into the design and engineering of these remedies," he said.

Still, Paterson is an example of the kind of confusion that can reign. Contacted last week, neither the district's facilities director nor its environmental project manager could say whether they had any buildings atop caps.

The idea schools are rising on still contaminated land was also news to residents in Paterson.

DeSion Brown works next to the Grand Street property where the International High School is under construction. He was surprised to hear the project will leave lead, copper and other industrial chemicals underground.

"I haven't heard anything about it and there's been dust and dirt blowing all around here for weeks," he said.

Most of the school's neighbors "don't really know enough to worry about the toxicity of this area," he said. "They wouldn't even know to ask."


* * *

By the numbers

** In North Jersey, the state has let owners of more than 120 polluted properties cover the contamination with a cap of soil, asphalt or some other material rather than removing it. That includes 57 sites in Bergen County and 50 in Passaic County.

** At least 36 towns in the area have capped sites. At the top: Paterson, with 19 caps; Clifton, 14; Passaic, 9; Carlstadt, 8; and Hackensack and North Bergen, with 7 each.

** Caps save money: One environmental consultant recalled a Hudson County condo development that spent $3 million to remove polluted soil. Capping would have cost less than $200,000, he estimated.