Posted 10 May 2011, by Rose Eveleth, OnEarth, onearth.org
When you peer through the chain-link fence at 900 Garfield Avenue in Jersey City, New Jersey, you will notice that concrete slabs occupy the space where buildings once stood. Nearby, blue and green tarps cover mounds of dirt. More remarkable, however, is what you can’t see: beneath the surface lie 700,000 tons of chromium waste that has been present on the 16.6-acre site for more than 50 years, seeping into the soil and groundwater and escaping into the air as dust.
Chromium ore is an amazingly useful substance. When processed and added to steel, chromium produces stainless steel; when applied as a coating to boats, planes, and cars, it protects their surfaces from rust. This work was done by PPG Industries for 40 years, until the Garfield Avenue facility was shuttered in 1963 and manufacturing was shifted to a newer plant in Texas. Left behind were high concentrations of hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen that, when inhaled or ingested, can cause lung cancer, gastrointestinal bleeding, ulcers, respiratory problems, and low birth weight. Now, after decades of failed attempts, a legal settlement among NRDC, local community groups, and PPG, which is based in Pittsburgh, will finally bring about a thorough cleanup of the contamination.
Chromium pollution is a national problem. Erin Brockovich made her name seeking legal reparations for a Hinkley, California, community that suffered health consequences from hexavalent chromium in its water supply; the battle she waged against Pacific Gas and Electric in the1990s became the basis of the film starring Julia Roberts, who won an Oscar for her performance as Brockovich. Even today, about half of California’s drinking water is tainted by chromium, which has also killed off aquatic life in the harbors of Baltimore and Boston.
Garfield Avenue is one of more than 130 chromium-contaminated sites in heavily industrialized New Jersey, and one of the largest. The settlement, according to Nancy Marks, a senior attorney who led NRDC’s legal team, could open the door for effective remediation of other sites. “I’m hoping that this will be part of a general clamping down on hexavalent chromium nationwide,” she says.
Like many such contaminated sites in the United States, 900 Garfield Avenue sits in the middle of a low-income community where the majority of residents happen to be people of color. They have had to tolerate yellow pools of chromium-tainted water seeping into their basements when it rains.
“Had this been a more affluent community — a whiter community — this would have been handled differently,” asserts Joe Morris, an organizer with the Interfaith Community Organization (ICO), a local group that sought out NRDC in 2005 to help wage its legal battle against PPG. By then, the fight to clean up the site had already dragged on for 23 years, during which time the state of New Jersey negotiated, but failed to enforce, several agreements with the company. “Both the company and the state have a long track record of failure at this site,” says Al Huang, an environmental justice attorney at NRDC.
Marks and Huang worked closely with ICO and other local organizations to bring legal action against PPG. “The community defined its expectations for justice, and our role was to use the law to achieve those goals,” Huang says.
The cleanup will cost PPG hundreds of millions of dollars and take an estimated five years to complete. New Jersey usually requires that polluters reduce chromium levels to 20 parts per million, but this settlement requires PPG to reduce levels to five parts per million. The agreement also requires PPG to fund the salary of a consultant knowledgeable about chromium contamination, who will be hired by the community to represent its concerns during the cleanup and monitor the progress. In addition, the settlement allows residents living in the vicinity to have their property assessed for contamination; if chromium exceeds safe levels, PPG will have to clean up those sites, too.
The clean-up at 900 Garfield Avenue begins this spring, finally bringing residents relief after more than a quarter of a century. Yet more than 600 Superfund sites around the country remain contaminated with chromium. The victory forged by NRDC and its local partners sends a strong message to similarly afflicted communities that they need not tolerate the toxic legacy of industrial pollution.