Toxic Troubles

By Fallon, Scott; O'Neill, James M. | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Toxic Troubles


Fallon, Scott, O'Neill, James M., Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


Ambitious project documents long-term pollution problems

To put New Jersey's 20,000 toxic sites in perspective, consider that there are three for every square mile, or an average of 35 in each town. Add to that 1 1 1 Superfund sites, the most in the nation, and you have a state that has earned all the barbs from the likes of Leno and Letterman.

But what might be fodder for comedians is deadly serious for the people who live with pollution. Toxic chemicals have spread under entire neighborhoods. Two of our rivers (the Passaic and Hudson) are Superfund sites. Contamination has sickened residents and damaged property values.

The Record has an ongoing series called "Toxic Landscape," in which we investigate why some of the most polluted sites in New Jersey have languished for decades. There are thousands of these sites in our backyard, and we are painstakingly mapping every one of them on a special page devoted to the series: www.northjersey.com/specialreports/full/toxiclandscape.html.

So far we have shown that:

* The Superfund program has fallen short of its promise in North Jersey due to inattention, mistakes and questionable decisions by the Environmental Protection Agency.

* One of New Jersey's biggest polluters, DuPont, gave the state 70 acres of land inundated with high levels of lead and arsenic as reparation for contaminating groundwater.

* Despite more aggressive action by neighboring states, New Jersey has not ranked or tested sites for hundreds of contaminated groundwater plumes beneath homes that could send toxic vapors into basements.

* New Jersey is sometimes powerless to conduct basic environmental enforcement. In one case, the state failed for decades to force a small business owner to remove mounds of PCBcontaminated soil from his property.

* One of the most polluted sites in North Jersey will likely remain that way. Six years after Ford Motor Co. was forced to return to Ringwood to dig up thousands of tons of toxic paint sludge it had dumped, the EPA may allow the company to leave contamination in an area that serves as the watershed for 2.5 million residents.

These are stories that are hiding in plain sight. We know there are tons of toxic sites in New Jersey, but telling these stories requires exhumation of documents and sources.

In many respects, we are telling a history that has been concealed in warehouses. It involves bureaucratic inertia, neglect and, in some cases, outright defiance. But it goes beyond just the site's story, and takes into account the state of environmental regulation at the time decisions were made, as well as the industrial legacies of the communities that struggle with this pollution.

Documenting each site

The stories are based in New Jersey but the topic is universal. A reporter in any state can delve into the backlog of toxic sites and unearth stories.

Here's how we did it in New Jersey.

At the direction of editors Debra Lynn Vial and Tim Nostrand, the series began as an online interactive feature to map the 2,800 sites in Bergen and Passaic counties, home to 1 .4 million people and an industrial past that dates to Alexander Hamilton.

We wanted to give our readers an idea of where contaminated sites were and the status of cleanup efforts. In town after town, we kept finding sites that had been on the books for years - some for decades with little or no action. We highlighted those and enlisted several other reporters including Andrea Alexander, Nicholas Clunn and Giovanna Fabiano to research a number of sites in the communities they cover.

To do this, we had to dive into public records.

All of these stories involved document requests to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection using the state's open public records access law and, in some cases, FOIA requests to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. In one case a reporter obtained access to all records for a contaminated site dating to the mid-1980s and spent days in a state warehouse going through 36 boxes of material, including remedial investigations, site cleanup plans and groundwater monitoring results. …

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