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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Industrial Cleanup's Double Standard

Air Date: Week of March 18, 1994

Laura Seidel reports from New Jersey on the controversial Industrial Sites Recovery Act. The new state legislation sets two standards for hazardous waste cleanup — one for residential areas, and a less rigorous one for industrial sites. The Act is meant to save money and free up urban areas for industrial redevelopment, but some worry that the waste on such sites may still pose a threat to current and future neighbors.

Transcript

CURWOOD: In almost any US city, you'll find vacant commercial and industrial sites contaminated with toxic chemicals. There are thousands of them, and they don't just threaten the health of local residents. They are also a drag on local economies. Many business advocates say that often, cleanup costs are more than the land is worth. But until they're cleaned up, the sites can't be redeveloped for commerce. That means no new investment, no new tax revenues, and no new jobs. As a partial solution to this problem, the Clinton Administration has proposed changing Federal cleanup laws to include lower standards for some industrial areas. It's a controversial idea, but it's already being put to the test in one of the most polluted states. From Newark, Laura Sydell reports on New Jersey's new Industrial Sites Recovery Act, or ISRA.

SYDELL: ISRA created two standards of cleanup: one for areas that would be returned to residential use, and another for those that would be returned to industry. The actual health risk remains the same under the new law: one additional cancer per million people. But the new law assumes that fewer people would use an industrial site than a residential area, so the cleanup needs to be less stringent. But the bill has received criticism from many environmentalists.

(Street traffic)

SYDELL: At the end of Kasouth Street, in the ironbound section of Newark, stands the site of the former Celinese Plastics factory. Surrounding the site are small one- and two-family homes. The factory closed 30 years ago, before there were many environmental laws. Today the site is contaminated with PCBs. In the late 80s, the city of Newark decided to convert the area into a stadium for local sports teams and put in a public swimming pool. Arnold Cohen is with the Ironbound Committee Against Toxic Waste.

COHEN: Back in 1987, when the city started digging for a new swimming pool to replace an old bathhouse, they found phenols in the ground. The smell was horrendous; people were getting sick. They had to quickly cover up the ground and had to bring back that contaminated dirt from where they had started shipping it.

SYDELL: The Ironbound Stadium is now being cleaned up under New Jersey's old laws. However, Cohen says the problems here reflect his fears about the new standards, particularly that they don't safeguard against future change in land use.

COHEN: One has to keep, you know, very careful records so that if an area does change, if you do have a changing landscape or changing land use, you have a way of going back and saying okay, wait a second now. we really have to clean this property up further.

SYDELL: Under ISRA, says Cohen, industry will be able to cap toxic waste sites rather than remove them, leaving open the possibility that the toxins could later be released. Especially, says Cohen, if careful records aren't kept. Another concern of environmental activists is that industry and government will be making the decision about what standards of cleanup to use at the site. The New Jersey Public Interest Research Group failed to get a provision in ISRA which would have provided for the input of local residents. Drew Kojack is one of the group's attorneys.

KOJACK: The public often knows whether or not a site is used as a stickball site, you know, an industrial site the kids go over the fence. If that site is only going to be cleaned up to a non-residential standard, that's going to be a problem. And there should be evidence brought into the whole decision making process by the community, indicating that no, this site is used widely by children even though they're not supposed to be there.

SYDELL: But Lance Miller, an assistant commissioner with New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection and Energy, says the DEPE will make sure companies carefully protect sites.

MILLER: One of the conditions of getting a nonresidential standard is access to the site has to be protected. There cannot just be an open area with the nonresidential standards there. There would have to be appropriate fencing or whatnot.

SYDELL: Addressing concerns that contaminants could be released at a later date, Miller says that the public records will document what' s buried at the site. However, it's interesting to note that no company contacted for this report would allow a visit to a site covered by the new legislation. Most seemed fearful of drawing public attention. Nonetheless, ISRA may become a model for national legislation. In discussions over the renewal of the Federal Superfund Program, members of the Clinton Administration have said they are considering the two-standard idea. This has some environmental activists concerned. Verniece Miller, the Director of the Environmental Justice Initiative at the National Resource Defense Council, says two standards may result in more harm to poor and minority communities. She points out that there are more industrial sites in poor neighborhood, and uses her own community, Harlem, as an example.

MILLER: Many communities of color, if not most around the country, have a mixed zoning kind of designation. Meaning that you can have residential, commercial, and industrial uses of the land all in one area. Which is pretty unheard-of in most white communities. And we can use the example of the community that is our southern neighbor; we share our southern border with the Morningside Heights community. Morningside Heights is exclusively residentially zoned. You even have a hard time trying to get a commercial utilization.

SYDELL: Nonetheless, some environmental activists support different standards of cleanup, providing there is public input and careful records are kept. They point out that the legislation will help keep undeveloped land from being turned over to industry, because it will be more cost-effective for companies to reuse sites. Although officials say they are encouraged by the number of companies now cooperating because of the new cleanup approach, most say it's too early to tell just how successful it will be. For Living on Earth, this is Laura Sydell reporting.

 

 

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