Video and photos obtained by the I-Team show a Maryland company called Soil Safe has opened an 85-acre site in New Jersey intended to hold millions of tons of petroleum-tainted dirt, despite a letter from federal regulators warning of a possible “catastrophic release” of toxins into the Rahway River.
For decades, the site has been the repository of cyanide-laced sludge left by the chemical manufacturer American Cyanamid. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has signed off on all the necessary permits for Soil Safe to “cap” that sludge with petroleum-tainted dirt trucked in from contaminated sites around the country.
Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrote a letter warning of the possibility that dumping 2 million tons of tainted dirt on top of already-polluted soil could put too much pressure on the strips of land that separate the river water from the dump site.
“EPA has not been provided sufficient information to establish a significant degree of confidence that these lateral forces will not compromise the existing structural integrity of the berms and potentially cause a catastrophic release," wrote Judith Enck, regional administrator of the EPA.
Despite those concerns, video captured by the I-Team shows heavy construction vehicles are already moving what appears to be dirt on the site. Also, aerial photos provided by the environmental group Baykeeper NJ, seem to show some of the equipment less than 100 feet from the water.
Despite those concerns, aerial photos provided to the I-Team by Baykeeper, an environmental advocacy group, seem to show Soil Safe has been moving forward with plan to dump tainted dirt for weeks.
One such photo shows a newly installed trailer office and heavy construction vehicles used to move dirt less than 100 feet from the water.
Representatives of Soil Safe did not answer the I-Team's request for comment. The Soil Safe website, however, boasts of the operation. It reads, "Soil Safe, Inc. is pleased to announce that our newest facility, Soil Safe-Metro12, is now open and operational in Carteret, NJ!!!"
The website also says the facility “is now sourcing and receiving for permanent placement on site.”
Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the New Jersey DEP, said the warning letter from federal regulators was politically motivated.
"We have a project that has been fully done. It has been fully vetted and is underway," Ragonese told the I-Team.
"I think a certain EPA administrator is very close to a certain New York Senator,” he added.
Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, along with a coalition of Republicans from Staten Island, has been urging the EPA to take action to block the dumping of polluted soil so close to the river. They fear a flood could put Staten Island directly in the path not only of the petroleum-tainted soil being deposited now but of cyanide-laced soil that sits underneath.
State regulators and Soil Safe said portions of the study were blacked out to protect corporate secrets.
Elias Rodriguez, a spokesman for the EPA, said federal regulators have examined the redacted portions of the geotechnical report but the study did not allay safety concerns. “The geotechnical [study] did not answer EPA's questions,” Rodriguez said.
One of those questions concerns whether the weight of the petroleum-tainted “cap” can be supported by the cyanide sludge underneath.
“EPA is concerned about the cap’s design basis and impacts that may occur during its construction on areas of the site that overlie any groundwater that will contact the sludge and discharge to the Rahway River,” Enck wrote.
The EPA has not formally asked for the project to be halted. The letter requests answers to 10 questions about the safety of the project.
Debbie Mans, executive director of Baykeeper, said she believes operations at the site should be suspended until the New Jersey DEP answers the EPA's questions. She said the federal agency raised significant public health and safety concerns.
"I think the operations should stop until the New Jersey DEP answers the EPA's questions. I mean, the EPA raised significant public health and safety concerns," Mans said.
Ragonese said the New Jersey DEP would be happy to answer any of the EPA's questions. But, he added, New Jersey environmental regulators have no intention of asking Soil Safe to close the site while those answers are formulated.
“It’s under New Jersey’s jurisdiction to remediate this site,” he said. “It has been evaluated twice to meet EPA’s Superfund standards and it was left to New Jersey to remediate.”
Last year, the EPA and US Army Corps of Engineers sent a joint letter to Schumer explaining that federal government does not have jurisdiction over the New Jersey project site.
However, the EPA is currently proposing an expansion in the number of waterways and wetlands that fall under the Clean Water Act. If that rule change occurs, it is possible the EPA would attempt to assert authority.
Rodriguez said federal regulators have a collaborative relationship with the New Jersey DEP and it is premature to discuss whether the EPA might try to assert jurisdiction over the site if and when the rule change goes into effect.
"I think it's safe to say we decline to speculate on what our future options would be," said Rodriguez.