For the past eight years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has assured residents of South Plainfield, N.J., that it is safe to swim in Bound Brook, even though the stream runs alongside a Superfund site — the EPA's designation for the country's worst toxic waste sites.
EPA officials say they weren't surprised that the electrical capacitors were found, and on a subsequent visit to the site they discovered dozens more.In late April of 2007, however, local activists found along its banks two electrical devices, originally built to be used in household appliances, which had been leaking high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls into the muck. PCBs, which were used until 1979 as an insulator in the devices, are a probable cause of cancer.
The Superfund site encompasses several buildings where the Cornell Dubilier electronics company manufactured electronic goods from 1936 to 1962. After the company left the site, several companies operated there until the EPA recently began to demolish the buildings, which the agency said were contaminated with PCB-laced dust.
"The fact that there are PCB capacitors located in and around the site is not shocking to us. That is why it's a Superfund site, and that is why we are cleaning it up," Patricia Carr, an EPA spokeswoman, told the Center for Public Integrity. "We may not have seen it earlier because of recent erosion or heavy rainfall that might have uncovered them, but we are going to continue the cleanup as planned."The EPA speculated that the capacitors most likely were exposed because of recent flooding and erosion.
The Cornell Dubilier site is one of 114 across the country where human exposure to contaminants is not under control, according to the EPA. The site has been on the National Priorities List — the EPA's list of the most hazardous sites in the country — since 1998, but observers say work at the site has been slowed by Superfund's financial problems.
The person who found the capacitors, Robert Spiegel, executive director of the Edison Wetlands Association, told the Center he is alarmed by his discovery and believes it shows that the EPA has ignored a blatant sign of dangerous contamination. Spiegel said he also found debris that tests revealed contained high levels of asbestos.
"To me it just speaks to the gross incompetence of the EPA in their vague assurances to the public that these sites are safe, when clearly EPA does not have a handle on the contamination at this site," Spiegel said.
PCBs are considered a probable carcinogen by the EPA and the World Health Organization (WHO). Those same agencies have found that asbestos causes mesothelioma, an often malignant tumor, and lung cancer. A sample of residue in one of the capacitors, taken by Chapin Engineering, an environmental firm hired by Spiegel, showed PCB levels that were 1.3 million times the current state residential cleanup standard. The PCB levels in the brook itself have not been measured recently.
Richard Chapin says that the capacitors he inspected were so dilapidated that any PCB liquid inside had drained into the soil or brook.
"Old capacitors are full of PCBs, which are very dangerous things. If they are by a body of water they clearly are going to contaminate the water, which is going to make it unsafe to swim in, unsafe to wade in and unsafe to eat fish from," said David Carpenter, an environmental health professor at the University at Albany in New York.
In the meantime, according to a 2006 site assessment conducted by the EPA's own contractor, Tetra Tech, the water is being used by residents for wading and fishing.The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has posted signs advising people to abide by a "catch-and-release" policy if they choose to fish there.
The EPA said it does not intend to warn the surrounding community that more contamination has been discovered because the visible capacitors have been removed and the community already knows PCBs are there, Carr said.
The EPA has based its determination that the brook is safe for recreational purposes on 1999 studies done by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
"I have been involved at many sites that ATSDR has reviewed, and they consistently minimize and discount threats to human health," said Carpenter.
The recent discovery of more capacitors at the site did not prompt the EPA to further sample the sediment or the water or to expedite its cleanup plan, Carr said.
Carr said the EPA removed all the visible devices but conceded that there are probably more capacitors buried beneath the surface that could be contaminating the soil and water. The agency does not know when it will deal with the remaining contamination, she said, nor does the agency know whether PCBs in the brook are contaminating the groundwater.
After the EPA workers left the scene, Spiegel said he returned to find still more capacitors, and sent pictures to the Center of himself holding the devices. Spiegel said he believes the EPA may have neglected the waste in the nine years since adding it to the National Priorities List because the agency does not have the money to fix the problem quickly.
The current cleanup plan is estimated by the EPA to cost $100 million. EPA officials are trying to get Cornell Dubilier and other companies that may have been involved in contaminating the site to help pay for the cleanup. It is unclear where the funding necessary to complete it will come from, and how long it will take to get the funds.
Wilma Subra, an environmental consultant to communities struggling with toxic waste issues, said the Cornell Dubilier project could reflect a broader trend.
"Resources are being stretched so thin throughout New Jersey and the rest of the country that [the EPA] may not be able to afford to take adequate cleanup actions at this site," Subra said. "But that is not appropriate; [cleanup responses] need to be based on risk."
A toxic tale
In the nine years that the EPA has been working on the Cornell Dubilier site, the agency has sampled less than 20 percent of the homes that could be contaminated with PCB-contaminated dust that spread from the site.
So far, the EPA has sampled and cleaned up the yards at 13 private residential properties, but it has put off plans drawn up in 2003 to sample 59 more properties until the summer of 2007.
The EPA is moving at "a glacial speed," Spiegel said. "Children play in their backyards, and parents have to wonder: What is going to happen to these children? Are they being exposed?"
While ATSDR has done studies to determine whether the site poses a threat to human health, it has not made an effort to see if South Plainfield residents have elevated PCB blood levels.
The EPA, however, says it is confident in its efforts to warn the community about the site's dangers. "We have held numerous public meetings, distributed literature, and we often go out into the community and talk with people," EPA's Carr said.
The EPA said it advised business owners using the site to exercise precautions to prevent workers from becoming exposed to PCBs, such as telling employees to wash their hands before eating and drinking and to clean their shoes before leaving work.
"This means that for nearly a decade EPA knew these workers were being exposed to PCB-contaminated dust, where they would bring it home to their families, and they didn't do anything about it other than tell them to wash their hands," Spiegel said.
South Plainfield Mayor Charles Butrico said he is disappointed by the lack of progress at the site. The EPA's plan includes details for the next 18 months, he said, but does not offer a timeline for when the cleanup will be completed.
"If the money isn't available in the Superfund, it could be years before we get the money from the potentially responsible parties," Butrico said.
Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who has visited the site and expressed concern over the lack of progress there, and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., have called for EPA to immediately remove all capacitors leaking into Bound Brook.