A homeowner living near the former Keystone Metal Finishing plant on Humboldt Street has complained to the Town Council that she and her neighbors have yet to receive promised “clean bill of health” letters from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that would enable them to sell their homes.
Their neighborhood became a touchstone of controversy a decade ago when it was discovered that contamination from the old plant had reached neighboring properties.
According to Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell, the town has since cleaned and tested the groundwater and soil in the area to the tune of $700,000, and has concluded that the area poses no public health threat. In addition, the federal government had paid for other cleanup near the plant.
Resident Barbara Napierski has appeared at several Secaucus Town Council meetings, most recently on Jan. 22, to request that local leadership help her obtain a letter from the DEP stating that her property has been fully remediated and that contaminant levels there are within acceptable standards.
Without some documentation from the DEP stating this, Napierski has argued that her efforts to sell her home will be hampered by the stigma of being on formerly contaminated land.
“We want to sell this house,” Napierski said in a interview last week. “Legally, when you go to sell your home, if you’ve had a problem like what we’ve had here, you have to tell the buyer about the problem.”
She added, “Now, who in their right mind would want to buy a house, knowing it’s had contamination in the land? No one would, unless they knew the land was clean and safe. All I’m asking for is that letter.”
Elwell said last week, “The property has been completely cleaned up. We have conducted studies and we’ve used some very advanced techniques to take care of this problem. What she is asking for is something we have no control over. The letter has to come from the DEP.”
Long history of problems
Throughout the testing and cleanup process, homeowners were told they would eventually receive letters from the DEP once the remediation was finished and their properties were given a clean bill of health.
Property owners would be allowed to attach these letters to their deeds, thus making it easier for them to sell their homes – if they wished – and to sell at or close to the market value.
In 2002, the residents were told at a Town Council meeting that they would get their letters within five years.
First cleaned up by feds, but there was more
Problems at the Keystone site date back to 1991. That year, Keystone’s owner, Joseph, Karet, died and the town discovered 45 open drums on the property that contained several contaminants, including cyanide, alcohol, hydrochloric acid, and other hazardous chemicals. In addition, someone had dumped into the soil various chemicals used for metal plating.
Testing by the DEP determined that the site was eligible to receive federal money from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) superfund program, a governmental initiative to cleanup uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.
The Keystone site was ultimately remediated by local contractor PMK, using federal dollars from the EPA. At the time, residents believed that was the last they would hear about Keystone and its chemicals.
However, they were wrong.
Town officials learned in 1997 that contamination from the Keystone site had spread to several nearby properties and was present in deep level groundwater. Despite having this information, town officials, under the administration of former Mayor Anthony Just, did not inform the public or notify the affected property owners. This information was not publicly released until 1999, when Dennis Elwell revealed it during his successful bid to oust Just in the primaries that year.
Became a political football
Angry and concerned residents who lived on the affected properties began turning up at Town Council meetings on a regular basis to get information and answers.
“We’re all scared,” said Humboldt Street resident Dawn McAdam at a town council meeting held in March 2000. “We all want to know that we’re going to be all right. We want the town to tell us that.”
McAdam and other Keystone area residents who were once outspoken on the cleanup issue did not respond to several attempts to contact them last week.
“Most of the those people, they’ve given up,” Napierski said. “There’s a point where you just get tired of fighting. I think they figure, what’s the point?”
No word from DEP
According to town officials, the land around the Keystone site is now within acceptable federal contamination standards. Environmental engineers from the PMK Group were contracted to inject chemical compounds into the ground that disintegrated the contaminants, and federal money from the EPA enabled the city do some soil removal as well.
A toxicologist who studied the area also concluded that residents did not face any health risks at the time he conducted his research in 2002.
Area residents were repeatedly told they would receive letters from the DEP after this cleanup process was completed.
Napierski, however, said her phone calls and letters to the DEP have gone unanswered.
A DEP representative did not return phone calls last week seeking a comment.
“I don’t know which way to turn,” Napierski said. “It’s like I’m stuck and I don’t know what else I can do.”