July 15, 2018 | ° F

Environmental group fights to clean up contamination

The Edison Wetlands Association announced plans to file a lawsuit against a chemical company that has allegedly allowed carcinogens and other hazardous chemicals to seep into terrain near the Edison Boat Basin at a press conference yesterday. The Edison Boat Basin is located on the Raritan River, east of the University.

Robert Spiegel, the executive director of EWA, said the group is suing Basell USA Inc. after the chemical company failed to clean up the site, even though several tests found elevated levels of multiple pollutants, such as the carcinogen benzene.

"What we found was alarming," Spiegel said. "And not only what we found, but what [Basell] ended up finding with its own consultants."

A consulting company was hired to test the water, finding levels of arsenic 550 times higher than what New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection considers safe for surface water, according to an EWA press release.

Many residents use the river for recreational purposes, such as boating and swimming despite the presence of the hazardous contaminants. Some commercial crab fishermen also harvest crabs from the river.

"For us, what was really amazing was right here - right along this bank where thousands of people come each year to launch there boats, where children come to fish with their parents, where people come to jet ski - just a hundred yards away, you have toxic sludge, which is what we found was alarming," Spiegel said.

Contamination at the site began in the 1900s. Since then, a wide range of chemicals have been produced the site and have leaked into the river, said Judith Weinstock, an EWA staff attorney. Weinstock said she became involved in March after Spiegel noticed a chemical smell around the site.

"I noticed a real pungent odor," Spiegel said. "I went up and investigated and saw something just absolutely amazing. The stream bank here seemed to be just dripping toxic substances. There was what appeared to be asbestos. There was black tar sludge."

In one hand, Spiegel held what appeared to be a piece of rusty metal, an example of asbestos. In the other, he held a vial of tar, a solidified composite of the various chemicals found in the river.

Weinstock said their consultants have tested water and soil samples and found high levels of contaminants that exceed regulatory standards.

The composition of the soil can change but testers found substances such as benzene and 4-Chloroaniline which are both cancer-causing agents, said Richard Chapin, an environmental consultant and president of the Chapin Engineering Corporation.

"We told them about it, and they came up with a method of trying to control it," Chapin said. "When they proposed it, we took a look at it, and I told them I didn't think it was going to work because of the nature of the soil."

Spiegel said the effort was like putting a Band-Aid on a surgical wound.

Weinstock said the EWA sent a notice to Basell in June. She said they had to give the company 90 days to respond.

"When we came out in November, there was still a seep. A secondary seep had been identified." Weinstock said.

She said there was still corrugated asbestos and waste embedded in the river bend.

"At that point, the EWA decided it was time to initiate a lawsuit," she said.

Weinstock said they are asking the court to order Basell to take several actions, first being to immediately stop the contamination and clear up all of the solid waste. The EWA is also requesting a comprehensive investigation about the impact the pollution has on the ecology and human health.

An Environmental Cleanup Responsibility Act file indicated the site contained 68 historical spills, 95 chemical storage tanks and numerous drum storage areas.

Spiegel said the lawsuit was the last resort to get this site cleaned up and eliminate the threat to human health.

"It's just so clear in this instance that there is an imminent threat to the environment," said Kathleen Jackson Shrewgast, an attorney from the Eastern Environmental Law Center. The EELC is a non-profit law firm, working with the EWA.

"Ultimately, the reason our organization decided to file a lawsuit was that we wanted accountability. We wanted to hold the company accountable," Spiegel said.

Michelle Cerone

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