Final Report-RB

Who Let the Dogs Out: The Avoidable Radioactive River

By Rami Bazoqa

On a quiet autumn day, a woman takes her dog to walk at the local dog park. Only a few feet from her property, where he children play, is the large fenced in area next to her neighborhood. Little does she know that beneath her feet lie decades of state and federal ineptitude, corruption, and mismanagement that resulted in the exposure of an entire community to contaminated nuclear materials.

After WWII, the once rural farmlands that made up Wayne Township, New Jersey, transformed into a residential suburb after it had attracted many workers who moved to follow wartime industries during the war. From 1948 to 1971, a six acre site in the town was used to process monazite ore and sand to extract thorium and other rare earth metals. Unbeknownst to the operation, which was bought out by W.R. Grace in 1957, they had buried radioactive waste contamination materials on the site in a way that leaked into the local stream. In 1980, radiological surface contamination was discovered at the facility and on nearby residential property. 

This paper will analyze the factors that led to the various delays in the cleanup, as well as the political factors that contributed to responsibility of the cleanup being delayed tossed around between various organizations. This analysis hopes to give a greater understanding about how political instruments and organizations can help or hinder environmental efforts. The cleanup of this site was undiscovered and then further delayed by various political bodies involved due to the isolated nature of the suburban community. 

It is necessary to understand the key failings in state and federal bodies to both find and more importantly resolve the contamination on the site from the period of 1948 to the late 1990s. This paper will analyze these key mistakes to offer insight into the possible steps that could or should have been taken.

The issue of slowdowns occurring as a result of the failings of state and federal institutions to care enough about a relatively isolated suburban community began soon after the site’s creation. On June 11, 1959 John Russo, who was a NJ Department of Health inspector, was taking routine water samples from the river near the mining facility.{1} While taking his samples, he noticed a “milky white dispersion” which he took samples of and had analyzed. He had found sizable amounts of alpha and beta particles, which are the result of radioactive decay. This point in the river was less than one quarter of a mile downstream from the W.R. Grace mining facility. After touring the facility, Russo theorized that when it rained, some of the thorium oxide being stored on site  was being washed into the stream, which resulted in the “milky white dispersion” he observed.

On November 19, 1959 Mr. Russo made a call to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), later incorporated into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 1974, informing them of his findings. [1] The AEC and NRC were/are government bodies whose responsibility it is to ensure the safe handling of radioactive materials in order to protect people and the environment. [2] The AEC agent who received his phone call even remarked that “He felt that we should take a look into this operation and I agreed. He added that this company had been taken to court last year,  convicted and fined for general pollution of the area and the river surrounding the plant.” [1] 

At this point, the site was known to be near a stream showing  evidence of containing substances undergoing radioactive decay. It had also had several state and federal agents recognize the need for further investigation into the site. One might think, after all of this evidence and seeming need to investigate the situation, that an inquiry as to the possible contamination of the area might be conducted. And was it? A 1983 article in the NY Times bluntly put it best: 

“No follow-up analysis of the stream or the adjacent lands was ever made. ‘My best guess is that nobody thought to look there,’ said John D. Kinneman, chief of the Materials Radiological Protection Section of the N.R.C. regional headquarters in [Pennsylvania].” [3].

It wouldn’t be until 1981 when an aerial survey identified high radiation levels at and near the site that a proper investigation was begun.[4] It would further take until 1984 serious steps were taken to declare the site a major cleanup project. The unwillingness of the AEC to investigate the reports of radioactive particles in the river was a major oversight, and turned what could have been a routine fine on the facility into a major contamination site over the next two decades.

The discovery of the site also had a profound impact on the people living there. Arthur Bartolozzi, a health officer in Wayne, remarked that “people are scared…They have good grounds to be concerned.” [3] Before WWII, Wayne Township was a sizable farming town, but after the war the town experienced an influx of workers settling permanently to work in nearby booming industries. The results of the W.R. Grace facility was detrimental to the residents living near the site. The neighborhoods surrounding the site and affected streams formed the Concerned Citizens of Wayne, an action group determined to conduct discovery and deal with the situation as best they could.

A local nurse by the name of Randy Freeman conducted a brief survey of cancer cases in the Township. While this was not a proper scientific study, Freeman found that 13 of the 39 homes that reported cases of cancer were from the small group of neighborhoods in the vicinity of the W.R. Grace site.[3] Freeman’s intention was to prompt the state to conduct a proper survey, but the state health department told the Township it would not conduct a survey due to recent census/state surveys data not showing any significant increase in cancer risk for the Township.

In response, The Concerned Citizens of Wayne hired Dr. Marvin Resnikoff, a nuclear physicist working out of New York City to consult on the situation. Specifically, Dr. Resnikoff specialized in radioactive waste management.[5] He aptly pointed out that the data the state used to justify not conducting a cancer survey was outdated, since the Township had been experiencing heavy immigration and emigration during the previous three decades. New cases may not have had a chance to come up, and older cases may not be being counted due to families moving out of the area.[3] The Concerned Citizens of Wayne also found NRC (previously AEC) archives detailing several infractions against W.R. Grace concerning the site throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, such as improperly storing thorium waste, and exceeding waste limits for individual pits.[1]

Pictured above is the refinement facility owned by Rare Earths Inc, and later purchased by W. R. Grace in 1957. Located in the Passaic town of Wayne, NJ, the site is located on a main road near several houses and several small neighborhoods. From 1948 to 1971 the site was used to refine sand into various rare-earth metals. What was not known at the time was that the soil also contained harmful radioactive materials such as thorium, uranium, and radium that were leaking into the nearby streams and river. 

This aerial image was taken in 1981 by the EPA while it was conducting a preliminary investigation into the site. The original image was black and white, and has since been digitally colorized. This photograph shows the size of the site’s materials storage as well as its proximity to nearby residences, who had to deal with such a site existing next door for several years due to state negligence and stalling of cleanup efforts.

One thing the astute reader should be able to clearly pick out is the sheet scale of the dump site. In comparison to the seemingly tiny cars and buildings, the black tarp over the dump site is enormous. This is indicative of the fact that thousands of metric tons of material was stored at this site, mostly monazite sand and its by-products, namely radioactive thorium.

This photo is representative of the gross negligence and oversight of government agencies to regulate and balance commercial and residential needs in the post-WWII United States. The large site was created and operated next to large residential neighborhoods, and state and federal response to the cleanup was delayed due to either negligence or intentional delaying of cleanup efforts as a result of the desire to hide or reduce the publicity of the event. While Wayne is a reasonably large township, its isolation from major hubs means its environmental issues can be more commonly swept under the rug until they become major issues. If a town of close to fifty thousand residents can struggle to get the attention of federal bodies to inspect and clean up their radioactive site, one can only imagine how neglected even more rural communities may still be to this day. Greater effort should be put towards inspection of such facilities that produce hazardous materials, especially in rural and suburb areas.

Overall, The Wayne NJ remediation site was delayed for decades before and after its initial discovery. It took two decades of evidence to mount before the proper agencies began to take the site seriously. The process was handed off to several teams, including the AEC, the NRC, the Department of Energy, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and several other agencies.[6] The handling of the New Jersey site is a perfect example of what can happen to a community that is left ignored by responsible agencies for decades. Such agencies should take more care in monitoring and remediation environmental hazard sites in rural and suburban communities.

[1] “ML003735739.” King of Prussia: Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 2000.

[2] “About NRC.” Nuclear Regulatory Commission, April 2020.

[3] Hanley, Robert. “Waste From Atomic Research Found Contaminating Stream in Jersey Town.” The New York Times. June 8, 1983.

[4] “Wayne, New Jersey Fact Sheet.” Department of Energy, May 2020.

[5] Resnikoff, Marvin. “ABOUT US: Radioactive Waste Management Associates RWMA.COM.” website, 2020.

[6] Howard, R M. “Post Remedial Action Report for Wayne Site – 1985 and 1987.” Oak Ridge: United States Department of Energy, March 1989.