February 5, 2006
The New York Times
Finding the Bottom of a Polluted Field
By Anthony DePalma
JERSEY CITY — Just past the old municipal incinerator, near the car lots, strip malls and fast-food joints heaped on this city's far west side, a long fence juts into the shoulder of busy Route 440. Most drivers whiz by without knowing that on the other side of the fence lies one of the nation's biggest hazardous waste sites, one that spurred an environmental battle so contentious that it has dragged on for a generation.
The forlorn stretch of fallow land — an area the size of 34 football fields — is a casualty of Jersey City's industrial past, poisoned by a half-century's worth of residues from the processing of chromium, the versatile substance used in paints, stainless steel and automobile bumpers. In its most dangerous form — called hexavalent chromium — the wastes can cause cancer and other health problems.
No one is allowed on the site now, but before the dangers of chromium were known, the Roosevelt Drive-In operated here, and later there was a Valley Fair department store. Built on top of the crumbly gray, green and yellow cinders of the chromium slag — more than 25 feet deep in spots — the buildings had to be abandoned long ago because the ground beneath them buckled and heaved so badly that they broke apart.
If ever there was unloved land, this was it, and for years the city was willing to just let it lie there. But Jersey City's recent revival as a less expensive alternative to Manhattan has brought town house developments practically up to the edge of the chromium field. City officials are impatient for the site to be cleaned up, redeveloped, and put back on the tax rolls.
But there also is a broader question at stake, one that old industrial cities across the country have grappled with: Must every last bit of contamination be removed, at great expense, before land can be reused? Or can pollution just be covered over so blighted neighborhoods can be redeveloped more quickly?
Most cities and states, including New York and New Jersey, have adopted what are called brownfield laws, which allow certain types of pollution to be left in place and capped. Developers, protected from future liability by these laws, have opened up vast stretches of urban wasteland to new construction.
For their part, environmentalists say they have a "preference for permanence," meaning that they would rather see pollution completely removed, especially if housing is going to be built there.
The cleanup question is particularly important in Jersey City, which for years was one of the world's biggest processors of chromium ore. Millions of tons of residue from three plants were used to fill in wetlands and construction sites all over the city and in nearby towns. Besides forming the former drive-in's foundation, the hazardous material lies beneath stores, houses, schools, even the municipal incinerator.
Honeywell Corporation, the high-tech giant with headquarters in Morristown, is responsible for the drive-in site even though it never produced chromium in Jersey City. In 1954, its corporate predecessor, Allied Signal, bought the stock of the Mutual Chemical Company — which operated one of the world's largest chromium processing plants on land across Route 440 from the drive-in.
For every pound of chromium ore Mutual processed, it created two pounds of slag, which it just dumped on the banks of the Hackensack River, eventually creating a chromium waste field covering more than 30 acres. The slag also became fill in other parts of Jersey City.
Honeywell has cleaned some of the smaller sites, but until recently it was slow to do anything about the former drive-in, in part because it insists that capping is appropriate. Honeywell argues that chromium's main danger is through inhalation, and capping with clean fill eliminates the chance of any chromium dust becoming airborne. However, some scientists also believe that ingesting chromium-contaminated water could be dangerous if it somehow leaked into weakened underground water pipes.
Honeywell probably would have capped the drive-in site and moved on long ago had it not been for a coalition of residents, church groups and environmental advocates who thought capping was inadequate, especially if the land was to be used for housing. They sued in 1995 under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to force the company to haul off everything.
"I very much believe in economic development, but I want it done in a way that's safe," said the Rev. Willard Ashley, pastor of the Abundant Joy Community Church in Jersey City and a co-chairman of the Interfaith Community Organization, the group that sued Honeywell. Mr. Ashley says that allowing developers to cap a site, build housing on it, and then take off — what environmentalists call "pave and wave" — does not solve problems; it just postpones them. He wants all the hazardous waste removed.
Nothing has changed Honeywell's position that capping would take care of the contamination and the instability problem, not even a landmark federal court decision in the Interfaith case in 2003. In the ruling, the judge found that the way the chromium wastes heaved made capping impossible, because any cap would eventually be breached, exposing the contamination. The only way to make the site safe for redevelopment, the judge ruled, was to get rid of all one and a half million tons of the wastes, an undertaking expected to cost more than over $400 million.
Honeywell estimates that there are 110,000 truckloads of the yellow chromium wastes in the ground. It would take four years to haul it all to a licensed disposal site in Grand View, Idaho.
Honeywell appealed, arguing that the court should not have taken the case because the company had already reached an agreement with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. But the appeals court determined that the state agency was incapable of dealing with "Honeywell and its tactics," and upheld the earlier court's finding.
Late last year, Honeywell was back in court, asking the judge to modify his removal order because the circumstances of the case had substantially changed.
For one thing, Honeywell, which had always accepted legal responsibility for the pollution, never owned the site of the former drive-in. But in an attempt to gain legal leverage, in 2004 it bought most of the land from its previous owner, W. R. Grace, which had planned to build housing there and had insisted that the chromium be removed. As the new owner, Honeywell has no specific plans to develop the land, but is willing to let it be capped.
More important, Honeywell claimed in the court filing that it had finally figured out why chromium residues at the drive-in buckle. It said groundwater caused some of the chromium wastes to bond together, forming a hard layer that pushes upward, causing the surface to heave.
In unlocking the secret of heaving, the company said it had to remove only the hardened layer, which is about 10 feet below the surface. Then what is left would be encapsulated, preventing groundwater from entering, and covered with 7 to 12 feet of clean fill. Honeywell says developers could then build stores, offices or high-rise housing on the land.
Katherine L. Adams, vice president and general counsel of Honeywell, said that since the federal judge had found that heaving made capping impossible, solving the issue had fundamentally changed the circumstances of the case. Complete removal was no longer necessary, the company argued. Capping would cut the time needed to prepare the site for development to a little more than two years — half the time needed for complete removal — and cut costs by $100 million.
"I want to be clear about this," Ms. Adams said. "One hundred million dollars is a factor. But legally, our obligation, and we take it seriously, is to implement a remedy that is protective of human health and environment. But we're not obligated to implement more than that."
Armed with the new scientific explanation for heaving, Honeywell got a nationally recognized expert who had testified against the company in the first trial, Dr. Kirk W. Brown, to review the plan and design a multilayered cap.
The Interfaith Community Organization, which is connected to the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national grassroots organization, took exception to Dr. Brown's testimony, arguing that he had switched sides. The group also objected when Honeywell hired two lawyers who had been aligned with the organization in the earlier proceedings. The organization also had doubts about Honeywell's new capping plan.
Joe Morris, an organizer, said he worried that if Honeywell was allowed to cap the drive-in site, the owners of several other large chromium sites in Jersey City would do the same thing. "This ought to be the last generation that cleans up the industrial legacy of New Jersey," Mr. Morris said.
On Jan. 3, federal Judge Dennis M. Cavanaugh disqualified Dr. Brown and the two Honeywell lawyers. He ordered the company to move forward with the full excavation, scheduled to begin on April 3. The company has appealed the disqualifications.
But any delay pushes Honeywell closer to the point where it will have spent so much time and money preparing for full excavation that capping it no longer makes sense. Honeywell has already spent more than $60 million on the cleanup. Two huge boring machines have pounded in nearly 1,000 steel beams for a huge retaining wall to encapsulate the contamination.
The former drive-in is not the company's only chromium problem. Last year, the state of New Jersey sued Honeywell and two other corporations to force them to clean up more than 100 chromium sites in Jersey City and surrounding towns. And the company was sued earlier this month by the Hackensack River Riverkeeper, William Sheehan, and several Jersey City residents.
They say that chromium-contaminated properties near the drive-in that were capped and developed years ago — including the Home Depot store on the Route 440 site of the Mutual Chemical Company chromium processing plant — continue to pollute groundwater, which eventually makes its way to the Hackensack River.
"Protecting public health and the environment also means making sure that chromium does not get into fish, crabs or the human food chain," Mr. Sheehan said. "I take exception to the idea that they think they shouldn't be expected to also clean up these sites to a gold standard."