24 Feb 2014
CARTERET, NJ – We slipped, a zoologist, two environmentalists and I, through ice, snow and mud to a wire fence with a sign: Clean up the environmental investigation.
Beyond this fence, a 125-acre expanse of yellow marsh reeds, vines and poplars stretches north to the Rahway River. Decades ago, American Cyanamid ruined this expanse of wetlands, once home to rich oyster beds, with sludge contaminated with cyanide, the chemical detritus of the last century.
Years ago it was partially cleaned up and covered with a few feet of topsoil. Over the seasons, nature began to repair it.
But the Christie administration has another idea for this land. He looks set to let a company, Soil Safe, truck millions of tons of oil-contaminated soil and dump them at this site, located directly west of Staten Island and Arthur Kill.
When Soil Safe is complete, a 29-foot-high mound will cover most of this area.
New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection scientific staff reviewed this proposal and a number of members were dismayed. They said flooding could erode the bank of the Rahway River and cause the mound to collapse in the water.
In a 2010 email, an agency scientist noted that this project was “unsustainable” and “developer / business motivation for profit” fueled it.
In 2013, another agency expert said the proposal was “technically questionable”. Yet another scientist noted that if a flood passed through it, the mound of soil could collapse and “pose a threat to the environment or to public health.”
Yes, well, whatever.
The Department of Environmental Protection issued a highly unusual conditional approval in May even before receiving engineering studies. “I’ve never seen this move before,” said Debbie Mans, executive director of the New York / New Jersey Baykeeper, who has walked the field with me.
Political movements, on the other hand, are classics of the New Jersey genre.
The political leader of the county here is a Democrat, State Senator Bob Smith. He has two day jobs: he is chairman of the Senate environment committee and oversees a politically connected private law firm. He represented Soil Safe at a hearing before an elected county council, which he more or less dominates by carefully oiling well-funded political action committees.
Then there is Paul Weiner, one of the three owners of this contaminated marshland. He is the legal partner of State Senator Ray Lesniak, a Democrat, who more or less runs politics in neighboring Union County. Soil Safe now pays $ 75,000 per month in rent to the owners of this land; if the deal goes through, he promises homeowners several million dollars in tip fees.
There are two other actors in this drama. Soil Safe, by carefully accumulating campaign contributions, has acquired a political patron in the President of the State Senate, Stephen M. Sweeney. Soil Safe operates in Gloucester County, Mr. Sweeney’s home port, and pays millions of dollars in tipping fees into county coffers. His senior officials paid Mr. Sweeney $ 30,000.
Mr Sweeney, a Democrat who dreams of one day running for governor, has proven to be a useful dance partner for Governor Chris Christie. He guided the Republican governor’s more controversial proposals through the state legislature; Mr. Christie, in turn, left the bench, control of an authority or two, and perhaps the odd burying contract to Mr. Sweeney and his allies.
All those names and dollar numbers can make your head spin. It’s easier to think of politics in New Jersey as a big old pie. If the politicians behave well, there are enough slices for everyone.
Larry Hagna, spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Protection, said agency staff were no longer worried. Old staff emails – some written just eight months ago – are news from yesterday, he said. “We recently told staff, ‘You raised concerns. Does anyone remain in the opposition?
“No one,” he noted, “raised their hand. “
United States Representative Donald Payne Jr., a Democrat, persuaded the Army Corps of Engineers to look into flood risks. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy submerged this entire swamp into rough ocean waters.
State officials rejected his offer. “We have no more questions,” Hagna said.
Certainty is hard to come by on environmental issues. But faced with so many objections and so many political sponsors for this project, Mr. Hagna’s words fail to reassure.
It is not a bucolic land. The New Jersey Turnpike, a mile to the west, offers a constant low hum, and the white oil reservoirs rise like monoliths.
Then you climb over a pile of dirt and roots and poplar vines, and look over the swamp. Diamondback Terrapin nest here. Yellow-crowned night herons skim the water. Crabs dig houses in the banks. Three deer feed 100 meters away.
Fred Virrazzi, zoologist and intense and insistent man dressed in his finest “Duck Dynasty”, advised us to look up. A bald eagle wheeled across the sky like an acrobat detached from a swing.
“A lot of people don’t even know this river exists,” says Virrazzi. “There is so much beauty to unlock. “
Or, if applicable, be buried in contaminated sludge.