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EPA Superfund Listing Targets A “Polluted Valley”

homes in "the valley"

homes in “the valley”

Based on documents we obtained in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against EPA, we visited the Selecto Flash site, took some photos, and recently wrote about a pending EPA Superfund listing decision in West Orange (see: Will West Orange Site Be NJ’s Next Superfund?

But, as has become all too typical, that disclosure was ignored by the NJ press corps, who seem to be too busy with other important matters, like Snooki and Governor Christie’s latest insults.

So, surprise, surprise, again our disclosures were credible and EPA yesterday announced the proposed Superfund listing decision we wrote about.

Too bad the press corps ignored us, as their next day reporting is the typical lazy, shallow crap – basically stenography of the EPA press release backed up by a quick phone call to Mr. Sound bite, Jeff Tittel (see: Polluted valley on border of Orange and West Orange may be designated as Superfund site

But even EPA’s vague press release (e.g. targeting a natural feature like a “valley”? instead of specific sites or polluters?) is revealing and suggests avenues for critical questions from a real journalist on a deadline – both in terms of what it says, and what it omits:

(New York, N.Y. – March 13, 2012) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today proposed adding the Orange Valley Regional Ground Water site in Orange and West Orange, New Jersey to its Superfund National Priorities List of the country’s most hazardous waste sites. Ground water under the site, which includes heavily populated urban and suburban areas of Orange and West Orange, is contaminated with the chemicals tetrachloroethylene or PCE, trichloroethylene or TCE and cis-1,2-dichloroethylene. Exposure to PCE, TCE and cis-1,2-dichloroethylene, which are common industrial solvents, can have serious effects on people’s health including liver damage and an increased risk of cancer. The ground water contamination has impacted public wells used to supply drinking water to local residents. Some of the wells have been taken out of service and water from others is treated to remove the contamination and provide the community with water that is safe to drink.

First, let’s look at a few important issues EPA failed to mention.

I) Failure to Consider Vapor Intrusion Risks

EPA notes the “heavily populated urban and suburban areas”. Doesn’t that raise red flags?

The chemicals in groundwater are volatile organic solvents that can migrate into buildings and poison people – maybe the Star Ledger has not heard of “vapor intrusion”? (See: Living in the Toxic “Threat Zone”)

EPA will not mention those risk for several reasons: 1) because the Superfund program does NOT allow vapor risks to be considered in listing decisions, a major and embarrassing flaw; 2) because on January 6, 2011, EPA proposed to include vapor risk, which came under fire by powerful chemical lobbyists and EPA is now running away from it; 3) because EPA probably didn’t even sample homes to find out if there are vapor problems; 4) because it would alarm people and EPA avoids controversy; and 5) EPA has no program to reduce and regulate risks from hazardous air pollutants (air toxics) so they don’t want to even talk about those kind of risks.

II) Failure to Conduct An Environmental Justice Review

If a reporter were to spend just 5 minutes reading the real EPA regulatory documents (instead of relying totally on just the press release spin), they would see that there is virtually no site specific information and that EPA did not conduct an environmental justice (EJ) review.

I visited the site and walked the neighborhood and saw a lot of poor, hispanic, and black people who live there and are impacted, so I can assure readers that there are real EJ issues on the ground.

But just read the absurd basis EPA uses to avoid an EJ review: they claim that the EJ requirements do not apply because a Superfund listing decision “will neither increase nor decrease environmental protection.”

Whaaaat? Are you kidding me? A Superfund cleanup has no impact?

1. What Is Executive Order 12898?

Executive Order (EO) 12898 (59 FR 7629 (Feb. 16, 1994)) establishes federal executive policy

on environmental justice. Its main provision directs federal agencies, to the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law, to make environmental justice part of their mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their programs, policies and activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the United States.

2. Does Executive Order 12898 Apply to This Rule?

The EPA has determined that this proposed rule will not have disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority or low-income populations because it does not affect the level of protection provided to human health or the environment. As this rule does not impose any enforceable duty upon state, tribal or local governments, this rule will neither increase nor decrease environmental protection.

III) Why was This Site Proposed to Be Listed, While 35 Other NJ Sites That Qualify for Superfund Have Been Ignored?

Hmm, consider this:

EPA DISCLOSES NINE MORE SUPERFUND-ELIGIBLE SITES IN NEW JERSEY – Thirty Five Sites Passed Over for Superfund Relief; One More Site Still Pending

Now, let’s examine what EPA did say:

The ground water pollution has impacted several public water supply wells. The Orange Park and Gist Place wells serve a combined population of more than 10,000 people. After discovering the contamination in the early 1980s, the Orange Water Department installed a treatment system on the wells to remove the contaminants and provide the community with safe drinking water. Water from these wells is regularly monitored to ensure that the treatment system is effective and that people’s health continues to be protected. The former Brook Lane public supply well, which is located between the Orange Park and Gist Place wells, was taken out of service to protect the public from the contamination.

In 2011, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection asked EPA to consider the Orange Valley Regional Ground Water site for inclusion on the federal Superfund list. EPA conducted an initial assessment and is today proposing that the site be included on the list. The EPA is continuing its investigation to identify sources of the ground water contamination.

Does that chronology not open the door to a series of critical questions like: 1) who knew what when, 2) how was the problem was discovered, 3) how long people were exposed, 4) why weren’t people warned, 5) Why did it take it until 2011 for NJ DEP to request EPA Superfund designation, etc. (read our disclosure and note EPA did HRS back in 2009).

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  1. Eileen
    March 15th, 2012 at 13:00 | #1

    Thanks for this information – I’ve been following this story since the press release came out this week. It’s great to have your perspective.

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