Lead contamination pits city vs. Turnpike

City officials say they must do more than just sweeping up lead paint chips

Jersey City has closed several parks and sports fields due to lead contamination associated with the cleaning of the New Jersey Turnpike extension. City health officials closed Mary Benson Park on March 17 after health inspectors found lead paint chips in the park. Since then, more contamination has been found at other locations, forcing additional closings.
City officials, however, say sweeping up the mess isn’t enough and have contacted the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) demanding a more thorough remediation.
“With increased awareness on lead contamination, particularly in water systems making national news, we wanted to exert an abundance of caution with regard to paint chips found in Mary Benson Park caused by construction on the New Jersey Turnpike Extension above the park,” said Jennifer Morrill, spokesperson for the city.
“Hudson Regional Health Commission tested the paint chips and preliminary results found the presence of lead, so we proactively closed the park until the Turnpike Authority can remove the paint chips and any contamination from the park and implement a containment mechanism to prevent further exposure,” she said. “While this contamination is localized, the park is used by children during the school day and after school so we wanted to take the necessary precautions.”

Notification led to inspection

The city was notified on March 17 by the Regional Health Commission that paint chips from construction work by the Turnpike Authority on the overhead Turnpike Extension were found in Mary Benson Park.
The Jersey City Health Department sent inspectors out to canvass the entire area beneath the Turnpike Extension to determine if there were any other impacted public areas. Inspectors found paint chips at the Ninth Street Park that includes the Enos Jones playground and the Roberto Clemente baseball field. Hudson Regional Health Commission was notified and sent an inspector and the park and ball field have been closed pending cleanup by the Turnpike Authority.

“For years now lead paint chips and likely contaminated water have fallen from the New Jersey Turnpike extension and landed directly onto several parks, playgrounds and homes in downtown Jersey City.” – Candice Osborne
The Turnpike Authority is scheduled to begin cleanup of Mary Benson Park and the Ninth Street Park this week, Morrill said.
Further soil testing will be done following the surface remediation. The Turnpike Authority has also advised they will install netting to prevent additional contamination and will perform daily inspections of the area.
High school baseball teams who use the facility for practice and games have been notified and the Jersey City Recreation Department is working with the schools to find alternate locations.
“Last year through grant funding, we increased the number of people tested for lead by 3,000 and while currently there is increased awareness and sensitivity around the issue, we have been testing children for years and will continue to be proactively encouraging families on this,” Morrill said. “In addition to testing at their facility, HHS is equipped to host screenings in neighborhoods and will continue to work with the JCPS, PTAs and block associations to host screenings.”

Council members believe parks need full clean up

Council members Candice Osborne and Daniel Rivera said the Turnpike needs to do a comprehensive cleanup, not merely collecting paint chips from the parks.
“For years now, lead paint chips and likely contaminated water have fallen from the New Jersey Turnpike extension and landed directly onto several parks, playgrounds and homes in downtown Jersey City,” Osborne said in a letter issued to the state this week. “Our city officials have found lead paint chips at Mary Benson Park, Enos Jones Park and on the grounds of Ferris High School.”
She said Jersey City has invested millions of dollars in the remediating public land, including hundreds of thousands of dollars on Mary Benson Park.
“While it is frustrating to close down the park used by an elementary school and the park used for our Little League teams, I am thankful that the Jersey City Health Department has been proactive and am encouraged to hear that the Turnpike Authority will begin remediation of the parks immediately,” she said.
“However the remediation of the parks only begins to address the larger issues. Per meetings with the city yesterday, I was made aware that the Turnpike Authority could not provide protective netting until at least June. Putting aside the immediate remediation – how will Jersey City children be protected from the Turnpike’s continuing work until then? What about private homes and landowners who have been impacted by the work?”
She said the contaminated water runoff comes down the leaders on each stanchion on the extension, flooding the area around city parks with toxic materials.
“It’s been flooding and polluting the neighborhood without any penalty for decades,” Osborne said. “This standing water is also a breeding ground for mosquitoes, an obvious nuisance but also a heightened concern this year given the unknown Zika virus. City workers have asked multiple times for the Turnpike Authority to put in retention systems, and the agency’s response was that it was “not our fault.”
“What I know and what the residents of Jersey City know is that the park was there decades before the Turnpike.”
Osborne said that she is asking the Turnpike Authority to cease all work on the Turnpike extension covering downtown Jersey City until netting can be provided, ensure proper remediation of storm water runoff, initiate and facilitate a meeting with local residents to hear concerns and inform them of the plan of action, conduct door-to-door testing and remediation for lead, covering land from a designated point of distance on the eastern and western sides of the turnpike extension, including private homes and commence an independent environmental investigation of the impact of the Turnpike Authority work beyond the immediate remediation.
Rivera said he wants to the Turnpike Authority to conduct a comprehensive cleanup of these sites, and include the installation of artificial turf on the playing fields.

Water being tested also

Mayor Steven Fulop said the city has already started testing water as a result of reports of contamination in Flint, Mich.
“We heard the concerns of residents and hired independent contractors to ensure that Jersey City’s water is safe, potable and of high quality,” Fulop said. “Some of the results have been returned and look safe, but all of the testing should be completed with the full and final report to be delivered in the next two weeks.”
Two years ago, the Board of Education tested fountains and sinks (many of which have lead pipes) and those that were found above recommended lead levels were disconnected and replaced with bottled water systems. United Water, at that time, also tested hydrants near schools and the fountains in the schools, Fulop said.
Recently, according to United Water (now known as Suez), the Board of Education has hired another consultant to again inspect their systems.
Based on the Newark schools situation, the Department of Environmental Protection is encouraging United Water to take a proactive approach and explain the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended protocols on schools to the Board of Education, which includes flushing and proper maintenance of their systems to ensure that no lead is entering drinking water.

On Health Department testing

Fulop said the Jersey City Department of Health & Human Services increased instances of lead testing from 103 in calendar year 2014 to 3,351 in 2015. Lead testing and education by the lead staff increased 815 percent in just one year.
“We engaged 37 additional Registered Nurses studying for their BSN from New Jersey City University to assist in our enhanced Lead Testing Initiative,” Fulop said. “The City of Jersey City also received $500,000 funded by the New Jersey State social service block grant for Hurricane Sandy recovery. This grant funding has allowed us to provide more expansive lead education and testing.”

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com.

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