Chemical Contaminants found in Clifton Soil, Water

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Environmental Protection Agency personnel said contaminants have been found in the soil and ground water near the defunct Alfred Heller Heat Treating facility at 5 Wellington St., which has been blocked off. Contaminant vapors have been found in some homes in the area, which are undergoing remediation. School 11, below, which can be seen from the area in question, will be tested soon but EPA officials said they don’t expect to find contaminants there. Photo credit: Staff Photos/Tony Gicas

Article courtesy of Tony Gicas | October 1, 2014 | North Jersey | Shared as educational material

CLIFTON — Chemical contaminants infiltrated soil as well as groundwater beneath a bankrupt Clifton metal-finishing facility and settled under the homes in a neighboring downtown community, revealed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Following an emergency removal action conducted by the EPA, Cris D’onofrio, on-site coordinator for the agency, said an investigation of the former Alfred Heller Heat Treating facility at 5 Wellington St. uncovered “extremely high levels” of trichloroethene (TCE) underneath one of the plant’s concrete slabs.

D’onofrio classified the spill site as “highly contaminated” and later tests showed vapors from the contamination breached the concrete foundations of two homes located a quarter-mile east of the Heller site.

Vapor tests performed at homes in the impacted area, which EPA representatives estimated as the residential block between Trenton and Howd avenues on East 11th Street and Merselis Avenue, revealed a group of 13 homes which had enough vapor trapped beneath its concrete foundations to warrant Sub-slab Depressurization Systems (SDSs).

Systems were installed on Sept. 15 in the two homes which tested positive for indoor air contamination, sources said. The low-cost system, which is similar to those installed for Radon remediation, is constructed using a PVC pipe and a small fan to draw the air out of the home.

“The vapors are not like natural gas which you can smell immediately,” said City Manager Dominick Villano. “They’re colorless and odorless.”

The area with the highest concentration of contaminants was observed in the area of 188 E. 11th St., according to EPA documents. Investigators found the concentration significantly decreased as they reached E. Ninth Street and continued north.

Long-term exposure to TCE, a volatile organic compound which can emit vapors that migrate through soils into indoor air spaces, may lead to several health conditions including cancers of the kidney, liver and cervix, according to studies.

Elias Rodriguez, a USEPA public information officer, said vapor intrusion issues are common, adding the mitigation systems implemented in Clifton have effectively addressed potential risks in cases across the country, including regional EPA sites in White Swan and Hopewell, N.Y. (The size of the contamination required the USEPA take over rather than the NJEPA, Villano said.)

Although he said it would be “unlikely”, Villano said it is possible for the contaminant to enter residential drinking water if homeowners in the impact area are using a well.

“But, since most of our drinking water is piped, the only way it could get into the pipe is if there is a water main break,” Villano explained. “If there’s a spill and it gets down the aquifer, then it is possible.”

Officials said many Clifton residents still utilize wells such as the one on the City Hall property.

Going forward, EPA officials said the agency will work in conjunction with its sister bureau, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the City’s health department.

Because the chemical can be measured in a patient’s breath, there are tests which can show if an individual has recently been exposed to TCE. Physicians can also use blood or urine tests to measure TCE in a patient’s system.

Villano said the City has not received any health complaints from residents in the impacted area. The heat treating company was founded in 1933 to provide metal finishing services to the metalworking industry operating in the New York metropolitan area.

Documents show Heller moved to its location on Wellington Road in 1962. The 4.2-acre site, which contains six connected buildings, entered into Chapter 7 bankruptcy in January of 2009.

The heat treating process creates a finished product which prevents the outside layer of metal products from rusting. Considered a high-end business, Villano said the electrical process is expensive and primarily used for metal instruments.

“Whenever you’re working with metals or machine shops they use solvents to clean the metal,” said Villano, adding that solvents comprise approximately three-quarters of all contaminations. “They get into the ground and usually are contained due to the composition of the soil. However, in this case, it went deep enough to get into the groundwater.”

Because of the slope in the area, Villano said the contamination migrated down toward the railroad tracks and the Department of Public Works site adjacent to Trenton Avenue. Storm boxes, which carry rainwater out to the Passaic River, helped move the contaminant along Route 46 and south of Lakeview Park before ultimately settling underneath the working class neighborhood homes which line E. 11th Street and Merselis Avenue, he said.

Officials confirmed the spill also affected a portion of the DPW site nearest to Rt. 46.

Although the agency does not anticipate any positive results, as a precautionary measure EPA officials confirmed this week that it will conduct tests beneath School 11’s foundation.

Although the agency does not anticipate any positive results, as a precautionary measure EPA officials confirmed this week that it will conduct tests beneath School 11’s foundation.

“We don’t expect to find anything,” an official said of impending sub-slab tests slated for the Merselis Avenue school.

According to documents, the EPA became involved with the property four years ago when the Clifton Fire Department requested it and New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection collaborate on an inspection of the facility in March of 2009.

The fire department was concerned the bankrupt company had improperly stored hazardous materials and drums of chemicals.

Clifton Fire Department officials voiced concerns that a fire could ignite due to the lab chemicals and “shock sensitive” materials discovered inside the plant, according to EPA reports.

As part of an emergency removal action performed between April of 2009 and January of 2010, the EPA removed more than 500 drums of assorted chemicals and performed a cleanup of all wastes found in vats, tanks and equipment reservoirs.

According to an EPA inspection report, investigators on-site removed about 60 drums of zinc oxide sludge, 40 drums of sodium nitrite sludge, partially full ammonia and natural gas tanks, 400 drums of various solvents, acids, caustics and oxidizers, 50 fiber drums of elemental zinc balls, two below-grade process tanks containing 170 tons each of molten sodium nitrite and one 30-cubic-yard dumpster of zinc oxide sludge left in its parking lot.

As part of the cleanup and removal action, an asbestos-contaminated room located on the mezzanine level of one of the site’s buildings was boarded up and warning signs were installed on the exterior of the facility. During a visit this week, barriers installed by Clifton’s Office of Emergency Management were adorned with signs which stated the property is under 24-hour video surveillance by the Clifton Fire Department.

“It became apparent that poor housekeeping practices at the facility had resulted in chemical spillage during plant operations,” an EPA report said.

Subsequent soil and groundwater tests confirmed a TCE contamination in the area which raised concerns regarding a potential vapor intrusion of nearby homes. Sampling which the EPA completed in March of 2012 revealed elevated levels of TCE in the Alfred Heller site’s soil as well as in groundwater beneath the former heat treating facility.

“We’ve done several investigations since that time,” said D’onofrio. Two rounds of groundwater sampling via 12 monitoring wells and more than 112 soil samples enabled the agency to reveal a “significant” source at the site, he added.

Based on groundwater testing, the EPA is “fairly certain” the TCE originated at the Alfred Heller site. Vapor samples suggest a boundary but D’onofrio said the agency will install additional testing wells, a time-consuming procedure, to confirm the exact perimeter of the impacted area.

In response to Councilman Matt Ward’s request for a timeline, D’onofrio estimated within a year, and possibly as soon as six months from now, the EPA will submit final results and analysis. D’onofrio stipulated, however, that it is a complex issue because of the convergence of groundwater at the site.

“We’re not quite sure we understand yet the magnitude or exact area because some homes have very high hits while others next-door have very low hits,” D’onofrio said. “The wells will help us figure out where exactly this plume boundary is.”

Villano said the municipality will meet next month with D’onofrio and Rohan Tadas, a Licensed Site Remediation Professional (LSRP) from the firm of T&M Associates involved with the site’s remediation.

“They have to carry out some additional testing,” said Villano, adding the agency is attempting to test two neighborhood homes whose owners refused to allow EPA inspectors into their basements.

As of September, EPA officials estimate the agency has spent more than $2.5 million on investigations, sampling and mitigation associated with the Heller site.

However, officials said it has not yet been determined if the cleanup of the source will be part of an EPA-funded action or funded by the state. In regards to a Superfund site, D’onofrio said he is working closely with Tadas to locate the contamination source, which he said is “critical” to moving the effort forward.

Officials said investigators also discovered a tetrachloride presence in the impact area, though the chemical did not appear at the Heller site. Tetrachloride is an inorganic, colorless liquid often associated with refrigerants or cleaning agents.

Although Clifton officials have been aware of the issue since it was discovered five years ago, Villano said the USEPA has run the show since the beginning and the City receives updates about every six months.

Mayor James Anzaldi asked his colleagues to also reach out to congressmen and state legislators to effectively lobby lawmakers for help.

Mayor James Anzaldi asked his colleagues to also reach out to congressmen and state legislators to effectively lobby lawmakers for help.

“The situation described at the old heat treating plant is scary,” Councilman Joe Kolodziej said. “It’s a small comfort to know the federal government is finally addressing the contamination at this site. Once this can be brought up to acceptable standards there are multiple parties interested in redeveloping this site.”

A former local paving company purchased the tax lien placed on the land and retained an environmental engineer who is examining the site.

During a visit to the neighborhood several area seniors said they had not been contacted by the EPA nor had any tests performed.

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