2013-07-18 / Opinion

Toxic sites need to be addressed

GUEST COLUMN
ROBERT SPIEGEL

Significant damage and toxic releases at federal Superfund sites and at other toxic sites throughout New Jersey directly after superstorm Sandy were not reported or disclosed to the general public.

One such massive public health threat was in Pompton Lakes, Passaic County. This area has a large chemical groundwater plume that is poisoning the air in more than 450 homes.

During Sandy there were two weeklong power outages, causing the mitigation systems installed in the homes, which are venting out the poison gases, to go down for the entire time. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) response would have been laughable — merely advising people to open their windows — if it was not for the fact that more than 450 families live in constant fear that these toxic gases are killing them. The poison gases have devastated property values with no end in sight and have been linked to possible cancer clusters.

The EPA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other federal and state agencies must do better at planning and implementing solutions for the toxic inundation that New Jersey is subjected to from severe weather events.

The devastation that the Garden State’s toxic waste dumps cause is no less a disaster than Sandy or severe weather. For those affected, it does not matter if these disasters are man-made or caused by nature, because it does not change the impact to our New Jersey families.

Nobody has even spotlighted the fact that New Jersey has more than 30,000 contaminated toxic waste sites, of which many still have not been assessed since the storm. No one has bothered to investigate whether these toxic sites are exposing our citizens and the environment to additional toxic threats.

This is especially critical due to the fact that New Jersey now has fully abdicated its responsibility to clean up these toxic nightmares to the polluters with no oversight.

In most cases, if not all, the polluters and those seeking to make money from redeveloping these toxic dumps are simply covering them with thin, plastic pool covers or a few inches of soil and declaring them “clean,” and then are putting schools, playgrounds and day care centers on these sites with little regard for the temporary nature of these cleanup solutions.

All these temporary controls will fail at some point. Emergency planning and response needs to include a robust inspection program of these 30,000 toxic waste sites by environmental scientists and engineers from the state and federal governments.

In Pompton Lakes, the polluter should be forced to pay for the installation of solarpowered systems for every home. Solar panels with backup batteries could provide a green energy source to run the toxic gas venting systems in each . home if a power outage were to occur.

EPA demanded these toxic gas systems be installed in hundreds of homes, stating that they were critical to the health and well-being of the citizens of that community, so they should take action to assure that they never power down.

Federal emergency agencies and New

Jersey’s first responders must immediately prepare for future toxic disasters. Chemical manufacturers and those who polluted our state must pay the cost for this problem.

The Superfund “polluter pays” program must be reinstated so the funds are available to address these toxic nightmares, especially since there are often no responsible parties left, as many of these companies are experts at reaping profits while limiting their liability.

Several toxic sites in central New Jersey were severely damaged by Sandy, and the extent of the damage and toxic releases is as much a disaster as any natural one.

Global climate change and severe weather events will increase every season.

The toxic legacy in New Jersey must be taken as seriously as Sandy’s damage to our shoreline. Our elected officials and regulators must take responsibly as they do with any natural disaster to protect human health and the environment from the endless number of toxic releases into our air, water and soil.

Robert Spiegel is the executive director of the Edison Wetlands Association, Edison, Middlesex County.

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