Nearly 30 years after toxic chromium spilled from the E.C. Electroplating plant in Garfield, New Jersey, the EPA announced on Aug. 8 that the building would be demolished - the first step in a major, long-term cleanup of the toxic chemical.
Garfield, located in the northeastern part of the state, has been marked as a Superfund site by the EPA after three tons of hexavalent chromium leaked from a tank in December 1983. Due to inaction by the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), only 30 percent of the spill was cleaned at the time, leaving a plume of the chemical to drift beneath the city, unbeknownst to its residents.
Chromium is a cancer-causing chemical that can also damage the nervous system, and since the disaster, it has frequently shown up in homeowners basements, a gas station, a car repair shop, and was responsible for the closing of one of the city's fire stations, Garfield Fire Company 3.
Now, the demolition of the chemical's point of origin - the electroplating plant - is expected to begin on October 1. U.S. EPA regional administrator Judith Enck announced at the press conference that destroying the building is the first step in getting this Superfund site clean, and that it will be an important day for Garfield.
Garfield's new mayor, Democrat Joseph Delaney (who replaced Republican Frank Calendriello), was also on hand at the conference. The mayor has been credited with making several moves to improve the infrastructure and environmental health in Garfield.
"The EPA has done a great deal of work since 2002 to reduce the health risks to the people who live and work in the area of Garfield affected by chromium-contaminated groundwater," said Enck. "Today we're pleased to announce that we're ready to take a step forward in the long-term cleanup of the Garfield superfund site."
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., said he would fight for resources for the EPA to clean up Garfield, as well as other contaminated sites in New Jersey. "We don't have a choice about the science of what we're doing. To deny it is not only foolish, but a hazard to the people of Garfield." He also touched on the many Republicans who want to dismantle President Obama's EPA, saying pointedly, "The people who talk about doing away with the EPA need their heads examined, and I want to call them out on it."
A public meeting to discuss both the contamination and demolition will be held on the evening of September 10 at the Garfield Middle School on Lanza Avenue, according to city manager Tom Duch. Duch added that residents' questions and concerns would be addressed and answered.
In addition to being a major step, the demolition is also important because initial sampling showed that parts of the building, its basement, and the soil beneath it are all contaminated. The process is expected to be a month long, and the EPA is preparing for it by removing drums of other hazardous materials left in the plant when it closed down years ago.
This is a project that has only been greenlighted almost three decades after the disaster, and is a sobering reminder of the ineptitude on the part of the N.J. DEP, which oversaw the situation before the EPA stepped in.
"The DEP dragged their feet," said Jennie Coulter, whose Grand Street house was among those with a contaminated basement. "They could have solved this 20, 30 years ago."
Duch admitted the DEP had severely underestimated the issue for years. The probe into the factory spill took "far too long," he said. "There's no getting past that."
Photo: The city of Garfield is one of the EPA's newest Superfund sites. After decades of potential chromium contamination, work is finally expected to begin with a demolition of the building from which the chemical first leaked. GarfieldNJ.org