Toxic-Waste Woes in New Jersey

Area officials say chromium waste is a health hazard in homes and in workplaces across state

NEW Jersey has embarked on a multimillion-dollar cleanup to remove the hazardous remains of chromium manufacturing operations that state officials say threaten the health of thousands of state residents. For 26 years - from the early 1950s to 1976 - more than 3 million tons of chromium slag from three now-closed refineries were dumped in vacant lots, or sold as fill material at building sites in the densely populated communities of Jersey City, Kearny, and Secaucus.

Over the last several years, state officials have found the hexavalent chromium in 120 different sites - in homes, in factories, in parks, in trucking depots, in an elementary school, and on vacant lots. In 1984, the federal Environmental Protection Agency's Cancer Assessment Group rated hexavalent chromium among the 13 most dangerous carcinogens.

Hexavalent chromium is a by-product of chrome processing, used in the manufacture of paints, wood preservatives, stainless steel, and in the tanning of leather.

``The fact that the chromium slag is located at so many scattered sites in such a densely populated area makes it one of the most serious toxic waste situations in the nation today,'' says Thomas Burke, former assistant commissioner in the New Jersey Department of Health. ``Most other toxic waste sites across New Jersey and the rest of the country are isolated in rural dumps and lagoons. We have never seen anything of this magnitude before.''

Details on New Jersey's plan to clean up the chromium sites were revealed on April 17 at a press conference held by New Jersey Gov. James Florio. He said Maxus Energy of Dallas, one of the three companies that operated a chromium processing plant, has agreed to pay $51.5 million for cleanup and a $2.5 million fine. Maxus, Governor Florio said, will clean up some 40 sites it polluted within a five-year period.

But Florio said the other two operators of chromium processing plants, PPG Industries of Pittsburgh and Allied-Signal of New Jersey, have refused to contribute similar amounts of money for their share of the cleanup.

Florio said if necessary the state will use its own money. ``We plan to begin the cleanup immediately, and then we'll collect the money from the companies in court along with possible damages,'' he says.

``We're willing to pay to clean up sites that are our responsibility,'' says John Ruch, director of corporate communications for PPG Industries. ``But in most cases the state has not been able to trace the chromium slag back to our plant.'' A spokesman for Allied-Signal takes a similar position. All three companies say the reports of health effects of the chromium are exaggerated and claim the concentration of the chemical is not so dangerous.

But Ron Corcory, a hazardous-official for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), says the state has traced the chromium slag back to the two companies in dozens of cases.

To date, one death has been blamed on chromium poisoning, as have several illnesses. Charles Kerchner, 28-year-old who worked at his father's tractor-trailer company in Jersey City, complained of developing allergies, rashes, and a nose condition.

Soil samples taken in January by the state DEP showed a chromium concentration of 25,999 parts per million. State officials say that any level above 75 parts per million is a health hazard.

``We had no idea in the world there was chromium on the site,'' Mr. Kerchner says. The company went bankrupt in December.

Mr. Corcory estimates 7,000 people in Jersey City and Kearny are affected by the chromium. He says 3,500 live in the immediate area of a chromium site, while the rest work at industrial sites such as trucking companies where chromium was used as fill.

But Corcory admits more people could be affected because anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of the slag is unaccounted for. ``Almost every day we seem to find a new site,'' he says.

Corcory says the DEP plans to remove the 50,000 tons of chromium located in 34 residential lots first, which should be cleaned by 1991. The chromium would be moved to a hazardous waste dump in the Midwest at a cost of $29 million, he says, adding that the bulk of the 3 million tons of chromium is located on the 86 commercial and residential sites.

But it might be difficult to find a toxic dump to take the load, he adds. Further, technology to treat the chromium on site is only in the development stage. He said the state is exploring several options including building an underground storage facility in which some of the chromium could be enclosed.

In a dozen or so trucking companies and warehouses, air samples disclose high levels of chromium that could be extremely hazardous to workers' health, according to Gerald Fagliano, a toxic substance program manager with the state Department of Health. Mr. Fagliano said furthur testing will begin at those locations over the next several months.

Meanwhile, many residents say they cannot wait much longer.

Mildred Napolitano, whose house is next to a city park where chromium was used as fill, says waiting two years for the state to remove the chromium is too long.

``My homeowner's insurance was canceled last July when my insurance company found out about the chromium in the park,'' she says. ``It's been a total nightmare. I just want to get out of here. But who would buy this house. I don't think I could give it away.''

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