It’s the 1940’s in Maywood New Jersey. Some new homes are being built and residents are getting topsoil to create their lawns. Little do they know that they’re helping to plant the seeds for one of the largest and most high-profile environmental cleanup projects in the nation.
They gathered the topsoil from the grounds of Maywood Chemical Works, which has been disposing of radioactive waste from their production facilities.
This waste was not only contaminating the company’s site, but it was spreading to some of the residential properties in the area adjacent to the Lodi Brook, a nearby waterway.
Decades ago, these residents and the company were unaware of what they were starting, but today the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), New York District, is resolving it.
The Army Corps is cleaning up this site in cooperation with several communities. Today the project is reaching its final stages and is transforming a once contaminated land into a place where residents, businesses, and wildlife can thrive.
The Maywood Chemical Superfund Site is listed under the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Priorities List that documents the most contaminated sites in the United States.
A Superfund site is established when for a variety of reasons, hazardous commercial and industrial wastes poses unacceptable risks to human health and the environment.
The Army Corps’ New York District on behalf of the EPA is responsible for some Superfund projects in the New York and New Jersey region of the nation and it just so happens that many of the country’s Superfund sites are in its neighborhood.
“New Jersey has the most Superfund sites in the nation with 114,” said Richard Gajdek, project manager, New York District.
The Maywood Chemical Superfund Site is located in a highly developed area of northeastern New Jersey, just 12 miles west of New York City.
The property covers 153-acres in the boroughs of Maywood and Lodi and the Township of Rochelle Park in Bergen County, New Jersey.
In the early 20th-Century, Maywood Chemical Works sat on 63-acres of this land.
For over 50 years, the company processed monazite sand to extract thorium and other rare earth minerals used in industrial products, including mantles for gas lanterns, as well as processed lithium ores for use of lithium in commercial products.
The chemical and radioactive thorium waste that resulted from this production was stored, treated, or disposed of on the site into pits, piles, and manmade lagoons.
During flooding events this waste ran into the Lodi Brook and was carried downstream into other waterways, creating soil and groundwater contamination over much of the local area.
Spread via the Lodi Brook was the primary way the contamination spread in the community, but some residents also used soil from the site as fill on their local properties, which added to the contamination.
This spread the contamination throughout acres of land and into 92 residential, governmental, and commercial properties.
Since this waste is radioactive - a potential human carcinogen - this posed a threat to human health and the environment.
In 1997, Congress transferred execution of the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP) to USACE from U.S. Department of Energy. USACE is addressing the radioactive portions of the contamination under FUSRAP that is responsible for cleaning up low-level radioactive contamination from the nation’s early atomic research program.
USACE is performing this work in collaboration with the EPA Region II, the New Jersey State Department of Environmental Protection, and with Stakeholders such as the Stepan Company, a current owner of a portion of the site that is responsible for removing the non-radioactive material from, in and around its property.
Stepan employee, John Ostroski, engineering & maintenance manager, said, “When I first arrived at the Maywood site, I was tasked with a few projects that required coordination with the Army Corps. My first impression was how organized and effective the meetings were. Additionally, the level of communication throughout the project tasks allowed for timely completion. The Army Corps is very clear in what is needed to complete the work and allows me to coordinate activities on my end.”
USACE, in collaboration with the EPA and NJDEP, remediated the radioactive material and soil and treated potential ground water contamination in residential, commercial, and governmental properties in the area.
In addition, on the former Maywood Chemical Work’s site, USACE safely removed radioactive soil, old buildings, and metal drums that contained remnants of harmful solvents and degreasers.
Presently, USACE is removing contaminated soil from hard-to-reach areas including utilities and underneath highways and roads, including streets in the Borough of Lodi.
Vincent Caruso, borough administrator said, “The Army Corps has been very helpful in cleaning this contamination up. They have worked closely with the borough administration, police department, and our other emergency services to provide a safe environment throughout the construction project.”
To date, over 791,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and debris has been safely removed from the site.
“This is equivalent to 10,700 railcars that we used to transport the material to disposal sites,” said John Canby, project engineer, New York District.
“One Hundred Twenty-Five gallons of ground water have been treated, which is equivalent to 5 oil supertankers!”
The project's remedial construction activities are expected to be completed next year. These activities also included restoring wetland areas.
Speaking of wetlands, Ostroski added, “About two years ago, cleanup work was taking place in a wetland area that was very close to residential homes. The presence of the Army Corps could have caused concern in a community due to the reason for the work. The Army Corps went above and beyond in restoring the wetlands, which has been positively viewed by the community.”
Throughout the project’s progress, public safety measures have been in place for the community. These measures include continuous air monitoring, disposing of contaminated material to approved offsite locations, decontaminating the trucks that are transporting waste material off the properties, dust suppression measures, and traffic controls. In addition, regular community meetings are held to keep the public informed about the progress of the projects and to address their concerns.
Decades ago, Superfund projects like this were created partially from a lack of community knowledge and regulations. Today, these communities are working in collaboration with USACE to not only stop the contamination, but create a new beginning.