A waste disposal project across the harbor from Staten Island that envisions using soil from other industrial sites to top off 2 million tons of cyanide sludge is causing concern among environmentalists and some New York lawmakers.
The Rahway Arch is a 90-acre plot of land on the banks of the Rahway River in Carteret, N.J., that was a dumping ground for chemical manufacturer American Cyanamid in the 1970s.
Soil Safe, a Maryland-based company that specializes in recycling contaminated soil, has gotten approval from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to top the cyanide sludge still on the site with 15 feet of petroleum-tainted dirt, which the company says has been treated to make it less toxic.
The plan has drawn criticism from some engineers, environmentalists and New York politicians – all of whom say it could be structurally unsound, and risks spilling cyanide and other pollutants into New York Harbor, especially in the event of a flood.
During Hurricane Sandy, the site was almost completely covered in water, which worries environmentalists, who say even a lesser storm could trigger a release of toxins into the river.
“It just defies logic to understand why you would put all this contaminated material in a place that could flood and go into the community,” said Debbie Mans, of the environmental watchdog Baykeeper.
Mark Smith, president of Soil Safe, said his company’s treatment process will rid the petroleum-laden soil of all but six potentially toxic compounds, and the soil cap would be far less hazardous than the cyanide sludge underneath.
“Nobody has been able to come up with a solution for this troubled site and we’ve strived to be open and transparent, yet we get banged left and right by critics and the media,” Smith said.
Two City Council committees have scheduled hearings Thursday to discuss the project.
Initially, even staffers at the DEP raised concerns about the plan.
Last year a DEP risk manager who authored a report on the project wrote that it was “technically questionable” and would likely lead to “a release of sludge.” Another DEP inspector wrote in a report that “loading will likely result in discharge to the river.”
An internal email from DEP staffer Kevin Schick to a fellow DEP project evaluator warned putting 2 million tons of fill on top of sludge could force “contaminants into the adjacent Rahway River.” The email was obtained by environmentalists through an open records request.
But since then, DEP officials have said they changed their minds about the project, thanks to meetings with Soil Safe and a geotechnical report that has been redacted for the public.
The report, commissioned by Soil Safe and completed by an independent evaluator, addresses the stability of the ground under the proposed cap. But its evaluation and recommendations – making up nearly half the report – are redacted.
DEP and company officials say that’s because that section contained proprietary information about Soil Safe.
The report “gave us confidence that this was appropriate,” said DEP Director of Remediation Management Ken Kloo.
Some are asking why the DEP won't release the study.
"Why not give the data to everyone so it can be critically evaluated?" asked civil engineer Bill Mercurio.
In a statement, a DEP spokesman said the agency “has thoroughly evaluated the Rahway Arch project and has determined that it meets the state’s environmental, engineering and technical standards and requirements."