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After decades, some of America’s most toxic sites will finally get cleaned up

New funding and the revival of a long-lapsed tax on chemical makers in the bipartisan infrastructure law mean cities like Newark will get money to restore toxic Superfund sites

Workers in protective gear, seen in 1990, inventory some of the approximately 9,000 barrels of chemicals set to be removed by the Environmental Protection Agency from the White Chemical Corp. site in Newark. (Pim Van Hemmen/The Star-Ledger)
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NEWARK — The laboratories and other buildings that once housed a chemical manufacturer here in New Jersey’s most populous city have been demolished. More than 10,000 leaky drums and other containers once illegally stored here have long been removed. Its owner was convicted three decades ago.

Yet the groundwater beneath the 4.4-acre expanse once occupied by White Chemical Corp. in Newark remains contaminated, given a lack of federal funding.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Douglas Freeman, who runs youth sports programs in nearby Weequahic Park, said on a recent gray autumn afternoon, gesturing to the crumbling brick buildings and junk cars that show how the Superfund site has stunted the city’s revitalization efforts.

But three decades after federal officials declared it one of America’s most toxic spots, it’s about to get a jolt. This plot in Newark is among more than four dozen toxic waste sites to get cleanup funding from the newly-enacted infrastructure law, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday, totaling $1 billion.

“This work is just the beginning,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

On that same day in November that Freeman looked out at the White Chemical site, President Biden signed legislation reviving a polluter’s tax that will inject a new stream of cash into the nation’s troubled Superfund program. The renewed excise fees, which disappeared more than 25 years ago, are expected to raise $14.5 billion in revenue over the next decade and could accelerate cleanups of many sites that are increasingly threatened by climate change.

The Superfund list includes more than 1,300 abandoned mines, radioactive landfills, shuttered military labs, closed factories and other contaminated areas across nearly all 50 states. They are the poisoned remnants of America’s emergence as a 20th-century industrial juggernaut.

The 49 sites receiving money from the infrastructure law include a neighborhood in Florida with soil contaminated from treating wooden telephone poles, a former copper mine in Maine laced with leftover metals, and an old steel manufacturer in southern New Jersey where parts of the Golden Gate Bridge were fabricated.

Many of these sites are also in poor and minority communities, such as Newark, where most residents are African American. Biden has said easing the pollution burden that Black, Latino and Native Americans bear is central to his environmental policy.

No state boasts more Superfund sites than New Jersey. Some of them, such as the White Chemical site, have lingered on the agency’s “priorities list” for decades.

White Chemical Corp. first arrived in Newark in 1983, moving from across the bay in Bayonne to lease factory space. For seven years, it manufactured fire retardants and acids.

To cut costs, its president, James White, kept tens of thousands of precariously stacked and deteriorating drums, boxes and vats stewing with dangerous byproducts on-site.

After discovering containers oozing into the soil and releasing fumes into the air, regulators shut the factory down. White was sentenced to a year behind bars for illegally storing hazardous waste but was released after only two weeks because of his age.

Almost immediately, the EPA added White Chemical’s grounds to its national priority list in an attempt to fast-track its cleanup. Over the next three decades, the federal government spent $32 million to demolish the nine-building complex and truck away 23,000 tons of tainted soil.

But the work there is still incomplete. As the Superfund program’s budget dropped, so did the pace of cleanups in Newark and across the nation.

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The law that established the Superfund program in 1980 gives the EPA the power to compel polluters to clean up their noxious messes. But many of these companies have gone out of business, or in some cases, it is hard to find the culprits. Congress taxed the chemical and oil industry to create a trust fund for these orphaned sites, but the taxes expired in 1995.

By the early 2000s, the trust fund was drained. The agency has grappled with a mounting list of costly and complex hazardous waste sites ever since.

“When the taxes were in place, cleanups were happening faster,” said Danielle Melgar, an anti-toxics advocate with the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The Trump administration, despite reversing several high-profile pollution rules, drew praise from Superfund advocates for accelerating the rate of cleanups.

“For many different kinds of reasons, a site can get stuck at some part of the process. Sometimes it can get stuck there for a long time,” said Peter Wright, who ran the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management until earlier this year. Many snags, he added, were “not related necessarily to funding.”

The new bipartisan infrastructure law reestablishes fees on the sale of more than 40 chemicals often found in fuels, plastics and other products, ranging from 44 cents to $9.74 per ton depending on the compound.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) and other groups lobbied unsuccessfully to defeat the proposal.

“It’s really baffling to us that a single industry tax is being used as a pay-for in an infrastructure bill, particularly when our industry is a building block of all of that infrastructure,” ACC President Chris Jahn said in a phone interview. “You just look at where we are today, where we’ve been for the last 18 months on covid. The production of hand sanitizers and personal protective equipment, or even vaccines now — the ingenuity of chemistry makes all that possible, right?”

Biden administration officials, however, said the tax revenue will provide a critical boost for underfunded projects. Carlton Waterhouse, Biden’s nominee to head the EPA’s land office, said that even after paying for projects that got no financial support last year, there will still be money left over.

“So we’re also going to be accelerating our cleanups in sites where and in areas where we have overburdened communities and vulnerable populations,” Waterhouse said.

But many Newark residents, including Freeman, have heard similar promises from other politicians and bureaucrats.

Children who play at the football field a few blocks from the Superfund site don’t have many shops along Frelinghuysen Avenue to go to after games, Freeman lamented. Neither do seniors living in high-rise apartments near tree-shaded Weequahic Park, designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s family firm.

“We want what we were promised,” Freeman said. “We want stores. We want redevelopment in this particular area of the South Ward.”

With the groundwater still polluted, the city of Newark can only lease the former factory site as a commercial parking lot. Car-carrying trailers loudly clang up and down the avenue.

“I can’t stand these trucks,” said Chris Butler as he waited for a bus home. A counselor at a substance abuse center on Frelinghuysen, he said he didn’t know that he worked across the street from a toxic site.

To fully clean up the ground where White Chemical once stood, crews will have to inject a cocktail of chemicals underground to break down lingering volatile organic compounds such as trichloroethene, which is linked to neurological problems and several kinds of cancer. Right now, no building can be constructed over the contaminated aquifer without the risk of hazardous fumes accumulating indoors.

Until Friday, the EPA had to shelve the plan for nearly a decade because it cost $16.6 million. But with the tax reinstated and with Congress providing an additional $3.5 billion for the Superfund program, work in Newark and on dozens of other orphaned sites will begin “as soon as possible,” according to the agency.

Global warming gives these projects even greater urgency. The Frelinghuysen Avenue lot is one of more than 900 toxic waste sites facing ever-increasing risks from rising seas, fiercer wildfires and other disasters driven by climate change, according to a 2019 report by the Government Accountability Office.

Climate impacts could unleash hazardous waste at 60 percent of Superfund sites, mainly due to flooding. More than a dozen Superfund sites flooded after Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas Gulf Coast in 2017. In Newark, even a Category 1 hurricane could damage the White Chemical site, the GAO said.

Residents have become accustomed to seeing Frelinghuysen Avenue flood during heavy storms.

“It was like a river,” said Wynnie-Fred Victor Hinds, an activist and co-chair of the Newark Environmental Commission, who drove by the road after heavy rain this past summer.

“You can’t get away from it,” she added. “People are faced with this all the time.”

Brittany Gustavson, the site’s remedial project manager for the EPA, said the agency has yet to see any “signs of flooding or standing water during large-storm events.” She added that even if the lot was inundated, the layers of gravel and fresh soil over the site should contain the contamination.

Reviving the chemical production fee is a step toward making the Superfund program operate as originally intended, with industry paying to clean up its messes even after companies go bankrupt. The tax will be up for renewal again in 2031.

“That’s why it was called a Superfund, right?” said Ana Baptista, an environmental advocate from Newark, as well as an assistant professor of environmental policy at the New School in New York. “We were supposed to have this pot of money that would help move these things along. These cleanups don’t happen out of the goodness of the heart of the polluters.”

Lawmakers are considering going further: The House-passed version of Biden’s Build Back Better Act would reinstate a second expired Superfund tax on oil. The proposed fee — which would start at 16.4 cents per barrel and rise with inflation — has sparked a new lobbying fight on Capitol Hill.

“If they only do this tax on the chemicals alone, it’s not going to support the Superfund fund enough,” said activist Lois Gibbs, whose push to remedy toxic dumping in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, N.Y., in the 1970s helped spur the creation of the Superfund program.

But Stephen Comstock, vice president for corporate policy at the American Petroleum Institute, argued in an email that “existing funding mechanisms appropriately ensure responsible parties pay for cleaning up the sites.”

Back in Newark, the South Ward is eager to see the funding come through — and to see what the neighborhood can become. A developer is interested in building an industrial warehouse at the site once the water is treated. Freeman and other residents want something more.

“We want places where our residents can sit out and drink coffee,” Freeman said. “We don’t want to become a neighborhood full of trucks and scrap cars.”

Tik Root contributed to this report.

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