Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012 | 10:11 a.m.
OLD BRIDGE, N.J. — For more than a month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said that the recent superstorm didn't cause significant problems at any of the 247 Superfund toxic waste sites it's monitoring in New York and New Jersey.
But in many cases, no actual tests of soil or water are being conducted, just visual inspections.
The EPA conducted a handful of tests right after the storm, but couldn't provide details or locations of any recent testing when asked this week. New Jersey officials point out that federally designated Superfund sites are EPA's responsibility.
The 1980 Superfund law gave EPA the power to order cleanups of abandoned, spilled and illegally dumped hazardous wastes that threaten human health or the environment. The sites can involve long-term or short-term cleanups.
Jeff Tittel, executive director of the Sierra Club in New Jersey, says officials haven't done enough to ensure there is no contamination from Superfund sites. He's worried toxins could leach into groundwater and the ocean.
"It's really serious and I think the EPA and the state of New Jersey have not done due diligence to make sure these sites have not created problems," Tittel said.
The EPA said last month that none of the Superfund sites it monitors in New York or New Jersey sustained significant damage, but that it has done follow-up sampling at the Gowanus Canal site in Brooklyn, the Newtown Creek site on the border of Queens and Brooklyn, and the Raritan Bay Slag site, all of which flooded during the storm.
But this week EPA spokeswoman Stacy Kika didn't respond to questions about whether any soil or water tests have been done at the other 243 Superfund sites. The agency hasn't said exactly how many of the sites flooded.
"Currently, we do not believe that any sites were impacted in ways that would pose a threat to nearby communities," EPA said in a statement.
Politicians have been asking similar questions, too. On Nov. 29, N.J. Sen. Frank Lautenberg wrote to the EPA to ask for "an additional assessment" of Sandy's impact on Superfund sites in the state.
Elevated levels of lead, antimony, arsenic and copper have been found at the Raritan Bay Slag site, a Superfund site since 2009. Blast furnaces dumped lead at the site in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and lead slag was also used there to construct a seawall and jetty.
The EPA found lead levels as high as 142,000 parts per million were found at Raritan Bay in 2007. Natural soil levels for lead range from 50 to 400 parts per million.
The EPA took four samples from the site after Superstorm Sandy; two from a fenced-off beach area and two from a nearby public playground. One of the beach samples tested above the recreational limit for lead. In early November the EPA said is taking additional samples "to get a more detailed picture of how the material might have shifted" and will "take appropriate steps to prevent public exposure" at the site, according to a bulletin posted on its website. But six weeks later, the agency couldn't provide more details of what has been found.
The Newtown Creek site, with pesticides, metals, PCBs and volatile organic compounds, and the Gowanus Canal site, heavily contaminated with PCBs, heavy metals, volatile organics and coal tar wastes, were added to the Superfund list in 2010.
Some say the lead at the Raritan Bay site can disperse easily.
Gabriel Fillippeli, director of the Center for Urban Health at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said lead tends to stay in the soil once it is deposited, but can be moved around by stormwaters or winds. Arsenic, which has been found in the surface water at the site, can leach into the water table, Fillippeli said.
"My concern is twofold. One is, a storm like that surely moved some of that material physically to other places, I would think," Fillippeli said. "If they don't cap that or seal it or clean it up, arsenic will continue to make its way slowly into groundwater and lead will be distributed around the neighborhood."
The lack of testing has left some residents with lingering worries.
The Raritan Bay Slag site sits on the beach overlooking a placid harbor with a view of Staten Island. On a recent foggy morning workers were hauling out debris, and some nearby residents wondered whether the superstorm increased or spread the amount of pollution at the site.
"I think it brought a lot of crud in from what's out there," said Elise Pelletier, whose small bungalow sits on a hill overlooking the Raritan Bay Slag site. "You don't know what came in from the water." Her street did not flood because it is up high, but she worries about a park below where people go fishing and walk their dogs. She would like to see more testing done.
Thomas Burke, an associate dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, says both federal and state officials generally have a good handle on the major Superfund sites, which often use caps and walls to contain pollution.
"They are designed to hold up," Burke said of such structures, but added that "you always have to be concerned that an unusual event can spread things around in the environment." Burke noted that the storm brought in a "tremendous amount" of water, raising the possibility that groundwater plumes could have changed.
"There really have to be evaluations" of communities near the Superfund sites, he said. "It's important to take a look."
Officials in both New York and New Jersey note they've also been monitoring less toxic sites known as brownfields, and haven't found major problems. The New York DEC said in a statement that brownfields in that state "were not significantly impacted" and that they don't plan further tests for storm impacts.
Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said the agency has done visual inspections of major brownfield sites and also alerted towns and cities to be on the lookout for problems. Ragonese said they just aren't getting calls voicing such concerns.
Back at the Raritan Bay slag site, some residents want more information. And they want the toxic soil, which has sat here for years, out.
Pat Churchill, who was walking her dog in the park along the water, said she's still worried.
"There are unanswered questions. You can't tell me this is all contained. It has to move around," Churchill said.