Final Report-RK

A Frog in Boiling Water is Being Taken Advantage of by a Bogus ‘Recycling’ Facility in Carteret, New Jersey

By Rabiya Khan

As a resident of Carteret township for the past few years, I feel oddly at home surrounded by the peculiarities that have become familiar to me. The monumental white storage tanks, fields of satellite dishes the size of cars, midnight train whistles, the continuous drone of the nearby parkway, low flying planes, countless smoke stacks, and the intimidating cogeneration plant looming on the horizon define this community. Another environmental waste site or toxic mound among countless others will not be noticeable to me at all. The Rahway River should be a defining feature of this port town, but I often forget about its existence completely. Publicly accessible river banks for recreational use are few and far apart. Industries, active sites or abandoned, have claimed the majority of this abused water source. The Rahway River acts as a natural border for northeast New Jersey, New York and Staten Island. It is a town located 20 miles away from New York City and is just one of many port towns that surround the tributaries connected to the Hudson River, Newark Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Exit 12 off of the New Jersey Turnpike welcomes you to the peculiar town of Carteret with a massive Amazon Warehouse obstructing the view of oil farms just behind it. Just between the gigantic warehouse and the river, is a plot of land called the Rahway Arch, with 40 years worth of contaminated sludge.1

The myriad of corporate facilities connected to the river have been a vital part for the development, industrialization, and economic growth of this area for centuries. Despite the benefits, it seems as if the environmental burden is about to reach its boiling point after years of neglect and waste accumulation. Between 1930 and 1970, the wetlands surrounding the river banks could not be developed on, so it was used as a common dumping site for not only industrial waste, but also for garbage, chemicals, medical waste and other unknown toxic wastes.2 Since it was the dumping site of numerous industries through a long period of time, the danger to human health has not been thoroughly investigated.3 Cyanide was the most abundant substance found in this concoction. It is a carcinogen, meaning that physical exposure to it can cause cancer. If the waste leaches into groundwater, or is eroded into the river, the residents will be exposed to a huge health crisis.4 The toxic waste produced by American Cyanamid plant, between 1954 to 1970, ‘was mixed with contaminated water from the Arthur Kill’ into six massive impounds.5 About 200 acres of land was reduced to a bathtub of toxic material brought into Carteret from surrounding industries.6  Two million tons of soil contaminated with cyanide, petroleum, sewage, and other toxins were carelessly and haphazardly stored right next to moving water, and a vulnerable minority community.7 This initial capping technique had failed, the contamination was exposed due to erosion because it is surrounded by water from three sides. 

Years of slow bleeding toxic waste in the town’s infrastructure takes years to mitigate. In order for Carteret to begin recovering from decades of environmental damage, it should begin by prioritizing long term solutions instead of hiring private recycling facilities like Soilsafe. Soilsafe is a so-called recycling facility tasked by the landowners to clean up the reckless waste accumulation. The plot is located on the Rahway Arch, named after the shape of the river bend, and has been an abandoned EPA protected site for decades.8 It has been the subject of controversy because of its misleading narrative, suspicious political ties, outrageous project risks, and lack of transparency with the community. The ambiguous details of the project made me more curious, and I was surprised to see the true impact of this clean-up project. It is hardly considered clean-up since there will be more waste in the end, more than ever before.9 Soilsafe comes off as a sound and eco-friendly company, but it is far from the truth.10 The community has been led to believe that Soilsafe is making the community safer, when in contrast, is exposing them to long term risks. They have been conditioned to put up with the unfair prioritization and the short term solutions, essentially financial shortcuts, to deal with this serious environmental danger. The intentions of SoilSafe are misrepresented, allowing the company to put even more environmental burden on the residents.  As the anecdote goes: if a frog was placed into boiling water, the assumption would be for it to jump out immediately. If it is sitting in lukewarm water with the temperature gradually increasing, it will be less perceptive to the imminent danger. This paradox is comparable to the condition of Carteret, New Jersey in response to the protocol of the waste treatment plant. 

Rahway Arch Properties bought the abandoned plot after the EPAs restrictive deed was expired.11 This meant that the property could not be altered or reworked in order to preserve the integrity of nature, and to leave wildlife undisturbed so that the healing process could begin.12 The permits retained by the company allow it to process construction debris, petroleum contaminated soil, used tires, asphalt, and other mildly toxic waste, but the contamination at Rahway Arch is too vast, concentrated, and unique to be identified into a single category.13 Establishing a temporary facility on-site was a way for Soilsafe to retain its status as a type B Recycling facility.14 The Environmental Protection Agency approved of this project despite its low level permits.15 A conditional approval was granted so that remediation could begin as soon as possible, since the deteriorated barriers keeping the cyanide secure was now exposed to open air and water.16 The decision was unsuccessfully contested in court by the conservationist group called Raritan Baykeeper Inc.17 The property evaluation was done by a private company called EastStar Environmental Group Inc. and not by an impartial party such as the EPA itself.18 It is important to mention that Soilsafe has contributed to Stephen M Sweeneys State Senate campaign, who is also an owner of the Rahway Arch Property.19 Another owner is Paul Wiener, who is ‘the law partner’ of another state senator who receives $75,000 rent money from Soilsafe.20 “State Senator Bob Smith is chairman of the Senate Environmental Committee.”21 He just so happened to represent Soilsafe in a previous’ hearing before an elected county board.’22 A recycling facility has no business being so entangled in politics as well as controversial permit approvals from stakeholders. One can assume these ties helped the facility obtain permissions and permits with ease. This underhanded bartering system completely takes advantage of my lack of participation in public hearings. I had no idea this project was so close to home. Just behind a nearby warehouse, a company was putting my health at risk without my knowledge. It was quite literally out of sight, and out of mind. 

Water can carry contamination anywhere and everywhere, risking more than just the lives of precious plants and animals. Human health is still at risk since the property was acquired by SoilSafe. People can be exposed to toxins in a myriad of ways due to bioaccumulation, it can destroy the body from the inside out. Heavy metals and organic materials are easily absorbed into the body. They are persistent and stay in the system for extended periods of time. The current remediation is repeating mistakes of the past, there should have been more consideration to the sensitivity of this land, and to its proximity to the abused river bank. I was under the impression that the contamination would be recycled or treated; converted into non-toxic material safe enough to be exposed to people. This is the interpretation that the company promotes, but the toxins are not going anywhere, the material will not be re-usable or reduced in any way. The sludge will be covered, or capped, with layers of even more dirty soil.23 This process is a more advanced version of the impoundment strategy that was applied just a few years prior, the same strategy that proved this technique’s inability to control and contain toxic waste.24 Concerned community members are constantly directed to the project website created by Soilsafe. It describes the mission, objectives, and projectection of the project, but details of the procedure are nowhere to be found.25 

These implications were not gone unnoticed by environmentalists, but the emails and letters were cast aside and given roundabout responses of how the proper procedures were conducted.26 Staff members involved with the authorization of this proposal in 2010 “came away appalled” and one even noted that it was “not sustainable” and believed permits were pushed through because of “profit-driven motivation.”27 In 2013, the proposal was reviewed by another agency, it found that the ‘technically questionable’ mound would be destroyed by floods and the mound would eventually collapse because of its weight.28  The observation came true, most of the site was completely submerged under water after Hurricane Sandy.29 This was to be expected since the entire property, and communities near the river,  are located in a Flood Hazard Area.30 Rahway River is prone to flooding, soil erosion is inevitable. The soil excavation will make the flooding worse, especially to surrounding communities.31 

Soilsafe is technically a recycling facility according to EPA standards.32 In order for this operation to be legal, it will need to bring in 1.5 million tons of contaminated soil from another so-called recycling plant.33 Critics of this project “question the logic of introducing new contaminants to the property as a way to ‘clean it up.’ All DEP staff concerns about the project are being overridden by the Governor’s top staff.”34 This alarming fact is hidden and kept quiet by the facility, anyone seeking clarification or details about this transfer are directed to the Soilsafe project website, which blurs the picture even more.35 Rahway Arch’s sister plant is located in Gloucester County, the site is called the Logan property.36 It is a 160 acre brownfield that holds dredged contaminated soil from a past operation by the Army Corps of Engineers.37 The Delaware River is adjacent to this site, and has similar risks of flooding and leakage compared to Rahway River, so why are residents in central New Jersey getting a better deal?38 There is farmland and ample property to store waste, with no proximity to residents, but in order for the Rahway Project to be meet the legal guidelines, the soil needs to be treated with SoilProduct, a trademark that is not endorsed by the EPA.39 The process of mixing the Logan soil with concrete or construction debris creates the trivial SoilProduct; physically moving the mixture to Rahway is considered a ‘recycling’ process.40 The risk and proximity to residents is greater in the Rahway Arch property. The median income of Logan residents is $85,000 and an overwhelming majority (79%) of the residents are white.41 I can’t help but compare the condition of these two situations, especially since Carteret has one of the highest immigrant populations in New Jersey.42 There is more concrete and soil than plant life on Carteret’s side of the river, increasing the rate of erosion, compared to the abundance of foliage on the Delaware River. The waste would be secure, and broken down faster if Soilsafe reversed the roles of these facilities. 

The seemingly subtle topography changes from this operation affects the community in a significant way. According to City-Data statistics, 65% of residents in Carteret are non-white, and 20% of Black Americans are living in poverty.43 It is crucial to emphasize the demographics because it is directly related to income distribution. The median household income decreases as the community reaches further downstream.44 $52,000 is the lowest median income range located at the headwaters, while residents at the delta region earn a median of about $75,000.45 In the event of flooding, garbage and soil is deposited in the most densely populated, and poorest neighborhoods.46 If the soil is eroded enough or there is leakage on the toxic mounds, the people will be exposed to deadly toxins all across Carteret in the event of slight flooding. There is too much to lose, and too much uncertainty for this project to continue with confidence. 

 Judith Enck, EPA regional administrator in 2014 was “concerned about the cap’s design basis and impacts that may occur during its construction.”47 Specifically, she fears that the added weight will create pressure on groundwater, which can change ‘its direction and flow.’48 These factors were not considered by the permit providers or the planning committee.49 She continues stating that ‘the cap will put pressure on existing berms, whose structural integrity have not been clearly determined and could “potentially cause a catastrophic release.”’50 Several Staten Island assembly people have expressed their concern, and applaud that some interest has been taken by the EPA on this shady operation.51  They want transparency regarding the project, after they were directed to the Soilsafe project website, the ambiguity validated the suspicion.52 The council members state that an unsafe remediation will put their constituents, on the other side of the river, at risk of contamination exposure.53 “NY Senator Schumer has already denounced the Rahway Arch Project.’54

55

Despite the risk, Soilsafe comes off as an environmentally efficient facility. The photo above was taken directly from the SoilSafe project website and has clear intentions of minimizing the dangerous process of inefficient soil contamination cleanup.56 This is the website that is constantly pointed to by the company in response to questions or concerns. The image produced by SoilSafe is aesthetically pleasing despite the fact that the location is meant to store extremely toxic waste such as heavy metals. As discussed earlier, the waste will not be moved to a safer location, in fact more contaminated soil will be brought from another Soilsafe location to be layered and eventually capped by the company.57 In reality, the result of this process is uncertain, and unstable. This moment was captured before the land was disfigured. It was intended to convince curious residents and environmentalists that the project is some small scale construction contrary to the limited view. A recycling facility dealing with contaminated soil is expected to take extra precautions when it comes to environmental protection. Rahway river is partially visible, the banks will rise after rainfall while increasing its surface area. It may carry contamination further than the Rahway Arch. The hazardous waste will not only spread to nearby communities, but also leak into the ocean where it will be impossible to control. New York City in the near distance is a reminder that residents once commuted daily, crossing the Bayonne bridge, and seeing the difference in landscape. One side of the river is a grey, and bleak sight: the industrialized zone. Coming home from work the residents enter a world of oil tankers and strange buildings. This will be another landmark that differentiates the city from Carteret. The waste is not in the photo at all, instead the viewers see the land before its destruction, creating a false narrative that the end result will preserve the natural topography. The amazing view that this photo reveals is not visible to residents of Carteret, they are not allowed near this site. Years before the acquisition, the EPA declared this area an environmental hazard.58 Now that Metro12 has brought more contamination here, the community will be denied access to this natural asset indefinitely.59 The fact that the company portrays the facility as environmentally friendly is alarming and this image proves that it is trying to minimize the issues raised from prior lawsuits. This misrepresentation is an act of environmental injustice since the community at risk is not properly informed about the intentions, risks and future of the waste storage project.

After almost a decade of litigation, planning, excavation, and processing, the project is reaching its conclusion. The intentions of the remediation project have changed drastically since its inception in 2012.59 It states: “A 25-acre portion of the capped impoundments will be developed as a parking lot to support the adjacent warehouse facility, and the 40 acres of wetlands surrounding the impoundments will remain as wetlands and habitat.”60 The temporary facility was allowed to be established out of necessity to begin remediation immediately.61 The conditional permits tried to reduce the scale of the operation, but the limit was chipped away over time.62 Will the community and wildlife finally be able to stand on this buried poison to reap the benefits of the river? They will not. The parking lot promise was just an excuse for the property owners to hire a private facility, like Soilsafe, to make this land profitable as soon as it could despite the risks. This freshly dug grave will be thrown into another long term construction project.63 The initial stages for this project are underway, but the public hearings will not be effective because of social distancing guidelines in effect.64 The property owners want the return on investment quickly, by creating warehouses on one million square feet of the Rahway Arch.65 The ground is expected to break before the end of this year, while the remediation is still ongoing.66 This news is unsettling, after years of doubt and concern about the sustainability of this project, the land will be pushed to its limit with this new proposal. Residents living less than a mile away from this site will be in immediate danger if the predictions of environmental experts come true. 

 The project seemed disarming at first, but further investigation revealed deeper and more dangerous implications of this supposed restoration program. We discussed how the narrative of this project had been distorted to conceal the true intentions of SoilSafe. Comparing the facility in Carteret to its sister plant in Logan township proved how my community has been unjustly bearing the environmental burden for wealthy suburbians living around 90 miles away. The reason behind the community’s lackluster relationship and interaction with this facility was due to financial and political reasons. 

References

1SoilSafe, “Rahway Arch Project History,” Carteret-Clean Timeline, 2019

https://www.carteretclean.com/project-history

2 “Rahway Arch Project History,” 2019

3“Rahway Arch Project History,” 2019

4“Rahway Arch Project History,” 2019

5“Rahway Arch Project History,” 2019

6“Rahway Arch Project History,” 2019

7“Rahway Arch Project History,” 2019

8“Rahway Arch Project History,” 2019

9“Rahway Arch Project History,” 2019

10“Rahway Arch Project History,” 2019

11“Rahway Arch Project History,” 2019

12“Rahway Arch Project History,” 2019

13“Rahway Arch Project History,” 2019

14Doug, “What is required to obtain a Class B Recycling Permit in New Jersey?,” Resource Management Associates (Environmental Questions and Answers). December 2020

15“Rahway Arch Project History,” 2019

16“Rahway Arch Project History,” 2019

17Susan Loyer, “Court upholds DEP-issued permits for Carteret site,” My Central Jersey Newsletter. January 25, 2018

https://www.mycentraljersey.com/story/news/local/development/2020/09/25/carteret-three-massive-warehouses-proposed-near-nj-turnpike/3515511001/

18 Susan Loyer, 2018

19 Michael Powell, “In Plan to Dump Contaminated Soil, Classic New Jersey Politics Emerge,” New York Times. February 24, 2014

20 Michael Powell, 2014

21Michael Powell, 2014

22Michael Powell, 2014

23SoilSafe, “Rahway Arch Project History,” Carteret-Clean Timeline, 2019

24“Rahway Arch Project History,” 2019

25“Rahway Arch Project History,” 2019

26 Racheal Shapiro, “EPA has ‘serious concerns’ about Rahway Arch soil plan in Carteret, N.J.; Island contamination impact feared,” SiLive: Advance Local,  January 3, 2019 https://www.silive.com/news/2014/11/epa_has_serious_concerns_about.html 

27Michael Powell, “In Plan to Dump Contaminated Soil, Classic New Jersey Politics Emerge,” New York Times. February 24, 2014

28 NJNY Baykeeper, “Our Fight for Clean Soil,” Waterkeeper Alliance Newsletter.  

29SoilSafe, “Rahway Arch Project History,” Carteret-Clean Timeline, 2019

30“Rahway Arch Project History,” 2019

31“Rahway Arch Project History,” 2019

32 Site Remediation Program Office of Community Relations (Site Background and Project Projection) “Former Cytec Industries Site,”. July 2012

33 NJNY Baykeeper, “Our Fight for Clean Soil,” Waterkeeper Alliance Newsletter.  

34 Michael Powell, “In Plan to Dump Contaminated Soil, Classic New Jersey Politics Emerge,” New York Times. February 24, 2014

35SoilSafe, “Rahway Arch Project History,” Carteret-Clean Timeline, 2019

36 Mark Smith, “Logan Development” (Soilsafe project description), 2012

37Mark Smith, “Logan Development”

38Mark Smith, “Logan Development”

39Mark Smith, “Logan Development”

40Doug, “What is required to obtain a Class B Recycling Permit in New Jersey?,” Resource Management Associates (Environmental Questions and Answers). December 2020

https://www.rmagreen.com/rma-blog/bid/89706/what-is-required-to-obtain-a-class-b-recycling-permit-in-new-jersey

41Cubit, “New Jersey Demographics,” December 2020

https://www.newjersey-demographics.com/gloucester-county-demographics#:~:text=Race%20%26%20Ethnicity,%25

42City-Data (Census and data repository). December 2020

http://www.city-data.com/city/Carteret-New-Jersey.html

43City-Data (Census and data repository).

44City-Data (Census and data repository).

45City-Data (Census and data repository).

46City-Data (Census and data repository).

47Racheal Shapiro, “EPA has ‘serious concerns’ about Rahway Arch soil plan in Carteret, N.J.; Island contamination impact feared,” SiLive: Advance Local,  January 3, 2019 

48Racheal Shapiro, “EPA has ‘serious concerns’ about Rahway Arch soil plan in Carteret, N.J.; Island contamination impact feared,”

49 Racheal Shapiro, “EPA has ‘serious concerns’ about Rahway Arch soil plan in Carteret, N.J.; Island contamination impact feared,”

50Racheal Shapiro, “EPA has ‘serious concerns’ about Rahway Arch soil plan in Carteret, N.J.; Island contamination impact feared,”

51Racheal Shapiro, “EPA has ‘serious concerns’ about Rahway Arch soil plan in Carteret, N.J.; Island contamination impact feared,”

52Racheal Shapiro, “EPA has ‘serious concerns’ about Rahway Arch soil plan in Carteret, N.J.; Island contamination impact feared,”

53Racheal Shapiro, “EPA has ‘serious concerns’ about Rahway Arch soil plan in Carteret, N.J.; Island contamination impact feared,”

54Racheal Shapiro, “EPA has ‘serious concerns’ about Rahway Arch soil plan in Carteret, N.J.; Island contamination impact feared,”

55 Soilsafe, (main page photo). Soilsafe Inc. 2020 https://www.soilsafe.com/index.php/facilities/metro12

56Soilsafe Inc, 2020

57Mark Smith, “Logan Development” (Soilsafe project description), 2012

58SoilSafe, “Rahway Arch Project History,” Carteret-Clean Timeline, 2019

59 Site Remediation Program Office of Community Relations (Site Background and Project Projection) “Former Cytec Industries Site,”. July 2012

60 “Former Cytec Industries Site,”. July 2012

61Susan Loyer, “Court upholds DEP-issued permits for Carteret site,” My Central Jersey Newsletter. January 25, 2018

62Susan Loyer, “Court upholds DEP-issued permits for Carteret site,” 

63Susan Loyer, “Three Massive Warehouses Proposed for Carteret Industrial Area,” Bridgewater Courier News. September 25, 2020

64Susan Loyer, “Court upholds DEP-issued permits for Carteret site,” 

65Susan Loyer, “Court upholds DEP-issued permits for Carteret site,” 

66Susan Loyer, “Court upholds DEP-issued permits for Carteret site,”