The ghost of Keystone’s past Ten years after his mysterious death, Joseph Karet still raises questions

Even before Joseph Karet died mysteriously in June 1991, people thought he was a strange man. People living around his factory gossiped about him, even as he strolled passed their houses from the Keystone Metal Finishing plant on Humboldt Street towards the center of town.

For some people, the Keystone CEO seemed like a mad scientist out of a bad 1950s science fiction movie, creating clouds of possibly toxic fumes that floated down on the roof tops of nearby houses. Only a handful of residents then wondered if they might get sick. Few people, if any, suspected that a decade after his death, Karet’s ghost would still haunt them as chemicals he allegedly dumped into wells spread under some of their homes.
Now, as the town finishes cleaning up the area surrounding the contaminated former factory – using a $418,000 state grant that they just received – people are remembering the events leading up to the factory’s closing around 1990 and the questions it left in its wake.

“Sometimes we would see [Karet] walking down the street to go for food,” said Dawn McAdam, one of the people who lived across the street from the factory during the years leading up to its final demise. “Early on he looked rather intelligent. I couldn’t help thinking he seemed like a very smart man.”

But this perception changed over the last few years before his death, when Karet began to act even more strangely than usual.

“I remember he started dating a very young girl,” said Barbara Napierski, a resident who lived in the neighborhoods since the mid-1960s when the plant was still in full operation. “I remember she walked around wearing a cowboy hat and boots. He started wearing those space-age sunglasses.”

Karet, by this time, had begun to look shabby.

“He got to be a scroungy old man,” McAdam said. “He reminded me of a derelict or a hippie.”

As business declined in the 1980s, Karet apparently came up with schemes to help make money.

At one point he rented part of his lot to store racecars. He also apparently charged towing companies money to let them store other vehicles there. When town redid some of the sewers around town, he apparently forged a deal with contractors to allow materials to be stored on his property. Residents along the block facing the factory claim they always expected the unexpected.

And then, of course, there were the mysterious nighttime activities.

By the late 1980s, Karet lived day and night inside the crumbling building, and residents would see cars pull up at night and drivers jump out, leaving packages at the door – with a set of gray hands drawing these packages inside.

Karet was not alone at the end. For years, he had one loyal employee, a Latino man, who stuck with Karet and the factory, even though he had not been paid in many, many months.

“When I talked to the Spanish man, he would tell me he hoped Karet would turn things around and pay him,” Napierski said.

Didn’t build it

Joseph Karet did not build the Keystone Factory, nor did he initially set up metal finishing operations there. A title search by the federal Environmental Protection Agency showed that some kind of factory or another stood on that site nearly back to when the town of Secaucus was formed 100 years ago.

The first recorded owner of the property was a man named John Debuck, who owned the land from 1912 to 1936. Adolph Ecker, who bought the land in 1936, was apparently a silk manufacturer, and he owned it until 1945, when he sold it to a company called Aircraft Engineering.

In an interview several years ago, former mayor Paul Amico said the history of the facility involved making airplane parts during World War Two as well as sleeve patches for military uniforms.

“It was originally an umbrella factory,” he said. “But later it did chrome plating which raised most of the chemical concerns.”

Metal finishing – or adding metal finish onto another metal – started at that site in 1947. Karat and his partner bought the Keystone metal finishing company in 1960, altering its operations to include a host of more caustic chemicals, many of which were said to have found their way eventually into the soil and ground water.

The factory – sitting on a two-acre site – was located in a quiet neighborhood, surrounded on all sides by residential homes. Keystone was allowed to continue its operation in residential area because it was there before the zoning changes were made.

In 1988, the town of Secaucus learned that the soil surrounding Keystone’s building had been contaminated by acids, caustics and other chemicals used by the company in its metal finishing processes.

In an interview at the time with the Secaucus Reporter, Karet said that he was selling the property for development and that tests were being done to determine the full extent of the contamination.

“This plant has been operating since the 1940s,” Karet said at the time. “I bought it in 1960, long before everyone became aware of possible damage to the environment. Most of the processes use acid and caustics or other chemicals that are on the DEP’s hazardous list. So we expect there is going to be some contamination after more than 40 years.”

Some neighbors said signs of Karet’s carelessness showed early. Napierski, who has complained about the plant and its fumes since the 1960s, said she used to come out and find a white dust covering her car as well as the sills of her windows. Wastewater from the production gushed out of the factory at times straight into the street drains, thick with foam and steam.

“One woman who worked in the building said there were six foot holes in the floor of the factory,” she said. “And open containers of chemicals.”

Fire was a constant fear in the neighborhood.

“We went through two or three fires in the factory,” said neighbor Dave McAdam during an interview a year ago. “Sometimes we hoped the fire department wouldn’t get here in time to save the place.”

Abandoned by his family?

When Karet began to fall behind on his taxes in the late 1980s, he turned to his family. He had children elsewhere in New Jersey. They and his ex-wife shared ownership in some residential property in Secaucus. But they refused to help him when the town took him to court.

“I felt sorry for him,” said Napierski. “He just stood there. When the judge asked his daughter if she was relatedto him, she just put her head down as if she was ashamed of him.”

In June, 1991, police found Karet dead in the factory. Rumors abounded over the old man’s demise with vivid descriptions of how they found the body in the factory after no one had seen him for two days.

Some claimed the death was a suicide, although the site was sealed for almost three months and treated as a crime scene. Reports said the man’s apartment had no furniture, only a bed and a stove that didn’t work.

It was only then that the town’s health department discovered a massive amount of deadly chemicals inside the factory, some spilling onto the floor, others in open containers. Within months, the EPA sent a team in to remove the chemicals and the soil that had been contaminated as a result. Five years later, the town learned that some of these chemicals had made their way into the water table and under some of the homes in the area.

While the water was still considered safe to drink, a steady stream of residents began coming to city council meetings in the late 1990s to ask why information about the contamination was being held back. Some also suggested that cancer patients living around the area may have been victims of the contamination, although health officials did not find any evidence that there was a “cancer cluster” in the area.

The town foreclosed on the property in the 1990s and now has the burden of cleaning it up.

Cleanup funded

To help begin the actual cleanup of contamination on and off the site of the former Keystone Metal Finishing plant, the town has received a $418,000 grant from the state.

Gerald Perricone, of PMK Group, said that the project will likely begin with three to four weeks, and that residents in the contamination plume would get a schedule of events detailing what will be done and when.

The cleanup plan presented to the council and residents earlier this year has been submitted to state Department of Environmental Protection for its review, with an estimated return time of about 30 to 60 days.

Perricone said it would begin sampling sump pumps in houses that are within the affected areas, as well as taking soil and water samples. Air tests will also be taken in areas where sump pumps are used. This is to determine if people could be vulnerable to contamination spread by breathing it. Soil samples will be taken from residential properties around the perimeter of the plume to determine the exact extent of the contamination spread.

Previously, under other grants, PMK had taken a few samples and established a computer simulation of where the contamination plume should be. The tests proposed under the new grant would determine the actual boundary, which would be larger or smaller than the computer model.

PMK officials said they would need to get letters from residents to allow access to the various properties.

As outlined at previous meetings, the PMK cleanup plan would inject a hydrogen release compound into areas of contamination. This would be done at various strengths along a grid work pattern. Areas where the contamination is most concentrated would get more of the cleanup chemical. PMK officials said there are three injection rates ranging from four to six pounds.

The cleanup to an acceptable environmental standard will take from three to five years.

The second small and less concentrated plume near the DPW site will not take anywhere near as long.

PMK said there was some concern that a June water main break on Golden Avenue may have caused a spread of contamination from the plume around the former DPW site. Tests, however, showed that the soil is clean and that no contamination spread.

Several months ago, PMK looked for wells that are not registered with the state. All wells must have a registered number. Several residents in the area had wells that were used for irrigation when the community was mostly farms and before state established its new criteria. PMK is still investigating the area. Any well that is not registered must be sealed.

Because wells plunge through the clay layer into the water table, they can be an avenue for contamination escaping from below or a passage into which contamination could be dumped. While wells throughout the town may become an issue in the future, PMK is currently concerned with those within or near the contamination area.

The town, not the residents, will pay for the sealing of the wells, Perricone said.


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