Flooding nightmare or wetlands cleanup?

NJDEP says Rahway Arch project is safe, but does little to alleviate many concerns of public

A idyllic scene of the Rahway River and near the site of the proposed Rahway Arch project courtesy of NY/NJ Baykeeper.
A idyllic scene of the Rahway River and near the site of the proposed Rahway Arch project courtesy of NY/NJ Baykeeper.

UNION COUNTY — A potential deal in Carteret involving a cap placed over cyanide-contaminated sludge, the potential for flooding along the Rahway River, political connections, millions of dollars on the line and more is raising a lot of eyebrows throughout New Jersey, but no one seems to care.

At least, no one involved seems to care, but perhaps for very good reason.

Concerned residents, environmental groups and several local politicians are sounding the alarm, and so far, they have had very little success getting too many responses from the governmental agencies involved.

LocalSource has learned of these far-reaching and excessive concerns that come from environmental groups, flood control commissions, elected officials, non-partisan political groups and concerned citizens in the river’s path. And to date, the NJDEP has done very little to alleviate or reassure anyone other than themselves. They also have no current or future plans to do so.

The controversial issue has come to be known as the Rahway Arch project and involves capping a chemical waste disposal site near the mouth of the Rahway River that now serves as a retention basin for millions of cubic feet of water.

Soil Safe, a Columbia, MD, based company “specializing in the recycling of soils contaminated with a variety of petroleum products and heavy metals” according to their website, has been chosen as the desired company to perform the work, and in the process earning a profit off of contaminated wetlands in Carteret for many different groups. Rahway Arch Properties is the private company that owns the land. Rahway Arch Properties, Carteret, Middlesex County and Soil Safe all expect to earn money off the project.

“The project plans include filling almost 90 acres of floodplain with up to 29 feet of contaminated soil mixed with an undisclosed additive,” as stated by Congressman Donald Payne Jr.’s office.

That statement was part of a letter the congressman sent to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Oct. 16, 2013, calling for an “immediate hydrogeomorphical analysis of the upstream as well as the downstream fluvial and storm flooding impacts of the proposed Rahway Arch project.”

In addition to the request for a study, the letter goes on to suggest the NJDEP could use the help.

“The project site was washed over and flooded during Hurricane Sandy and there are no plans for a flood impact study,” the letter states. “Furthermore, the NJDEP does not intend to require one. Obviously, the communities along the Rahway River are very concerned that filling in a flood plain could divert up to an additional 800 million gallons of floodwaters into their communities.”

And therein lies the loudest concern that has been echoed by groups across Union and Middlesex counties, elected officials in Staten Island, a close neighbor of the property which shares the Arthur Kill bay with the site, the Rahway River Watershed Storm Water Advisory Board, the local and state League of Women Voters and the NY/NJ Baykeepers, an environmental group.

These groups represent the concerns of themselves, the concerns of any lack of an open and public dialogue with the parties involved, in addition to the concerns of the residents of Linden, Rahway, Springfield and Cranford in Union County, and other towns, like Millburn, located in Essex County.

To date, the NJDEP has not held a single public forum, nor have they announced any plans to hold one. In fact, according to a New York Times column published Feb. 24 titled “In Plan to dump contaminated soil, classic New Jersey politics emerge,” a spokesperson for the NJDEP “waved off” the comments from Payne.

“We don’t have any more questions,” Larry Hajna said in the NY Times article. Michael Powell, the author of the column, went on to say this: “Certainty is difficult to come by on environmental questions. But in the face of so many objections and with so many political godfathers for this project, Mr. Hajna’s words fail to reassure.”

Congressman Payne’s comments are just one of the latest in a long string of unanswered concerns layered into multiple campaigns to be as certain as possible that the project is safe and sound. And considering that there is the potential for a tidal surge to not only flood communities upstream, but for that floodwater to potentially be contaminated with harmful pollutants, just about every group that has learned of the issue has chimed in with different concerns and motives, and most have not received a significant reply by the NJDEP.

LocalSource spoke at length with Hajna, in addition to multiple experts on flood impacts and soil remediation with decades of experience working at the NJDEP. And according to these men, the concerns have been addressed at length as part of the permitting process, which has taken over four years to date and is not yet completed. Their conclusion:

“There is a serious environmental threat to the river that needs to be addressed, and this project will address is,” said Hajna. “The bottom line is, the final remediation action work plan that was presented to us meets all of our technical specifications. And it is the product of many years of discussion and development.”

According to the NJDEP and the Licensed Soil Remediation Professional hired for the project, EastStar Environmental Group, the Rahway Arch project will clean up a site that has been polluting the Rahway River and the Arthur Kill for over 50 years, eliminating contaminants from reaching these bodies of water through groundwater and rainwater, and create no additional negative or positive impacts on the floodplain in which it sits.
“We know we have a problem,” Hajnasaid. “We are effectively and expeditiously remediating a contaminated site at no expense to the taxpayers of New Jersey and protecting the water of the Rahway River.”

But these statements, based on what was called “an enormous amount of research” by Hajna, have failed to quell the rising tide of speculative concerns in and around the surrounding community. And first and foremost, one of the loudest voices has come from an environmental group headquartered in Keyport, NJ.

NY/NJ Baykeeper
Baykeeper, an environmental group that has been working on defending the site since the project’s inception, was actually originally contacted by the owners of the property a few years ago.

“The property owners actually contacted us in 2011 about building wetlands,” said Debbie Mans, executive director of the environmental group since 2008.

Mans worked as the Environmental and Energy Policy Advisor for Gov. Jon Corzine before becoming the head of Baykeeper. She was also appointed, by Corzine, to the New Jersey State Planning Commission. She had a stint from 2002 to 2006 as the policy director at Baykeeper and is a graduate of the University of Michigan. She also holds a Juris Doctorate degree from Vermont Law School.

“Like a year after the owners approached Baykeeper,” Mans continued, “they decided that Wetlands wasn’t going to work. And that’s when they decided to bring the plan to fill it with contaminated soil.”

The project, Mans says, got dramatically underway about a year and half ago at the local level in Carteret before working its way to the county because Soil Safe needed an amendment to the solid waste plan it already had with Gloucester County.

“The project is coming in as a recycling facility,” she said, “and when you have something like that you need county approval. It’s kind of unusual. Usually with a recycling facility, you bring the material you want to recycle, you process it and then you move it off site and put it back into production. With this facility, it’s going to stay on site. The material will stay on site and act as a cap.”

According to Hajna and the NJDEP, the plan is to the place a cap on top of the contaminated sludge, sealing it from future runoff of rainwater and infiltration of groundwater. That cap will be created using soil from around the Metropolitan area that has been previously contaminated with petroleum fluids.

These previously contaminated soils have been treated and do not pose a risk, and will be used to create the cap. The use of this material, which has no other known beneficial purpose, is the act of recycling.

“They are taking the dirt that has been contaminated with petroleum fluids,” Hajna said. “They have developed a product that encapsulates the soil. They are recycling it by putting in on top of the site. That’s something we have done across the state.”

But in some places, according to Baykeeper, Payne, the NJDEP permits and multiple other sources, the site will be capped up to 29 feet. Mans says, “Normally the standard is about two feet. That is also highly unusual.”

In addition, concerns have been raised from Baykeeper and others that the sludge is unstable and fears exist among the various groups that the weight of the cap could create pressure that exceeds the strength of the berms, or walls, currently containing the contaminated sludge. No one wants these walls to be breached and for excessive pollution to spill into the Rahway River and the Arthur Kill, something that is already taking place daily.

LocalSource spoke at length with Ken Kloo, director of the Division of Remediation Management in the Site Remediation Program inside the NJDEP. In April, Kloo will have been working at the NJDEP for 29 years, and is very familiar with the Rahway Arch project.

“The site itself is a series of impoundments that were used by the American Cyanamid site, located across the Rahway River,” Kloo said. “They pumped the sludge into these impoundments. The primary chemical in the sludge was cyanide.”

According to Kloo, in the initial discussions with EastStar Environmental Group, these concerns regarding the fear that the sludge could spill over or through the berms because of the weight placed on top were raised, but the issue was extensively reviewed, he said, and the concern was alleviated.

“Well of course that was one of the considerations that were addressed by the licensed site remediation professionals, and it is one of the concerns we initially raised. Because the sludge is relatively unstable, we had those same concerns about placing this capping material and possibly causing its release,” he said. “We were able to review the geotechnical report issued by a private licensed engineering company; it was reviewed by the LSRP, and then by another engineer responsible for the grading and design of the cap, and then an engineer with the DEP reviewed it.

“And the conclusion is,” Kloo continued, “that it is technically sound and will work if it is implemented as planned.”

These same issues were raised in internal emails and documents at the NJDEP, most of which date back as far as four years. These emails have been circulating various media outlets that have been reporting the NJDEP has moved ahead with a project despite concerns internally. But these communications, according to Kloo and Hajna, are simply being taken out of context and are part of the normal DEP permitting process where everyone has the right to express concern and engage in internal discourse. Varying opinions are welcomed, they said, to ensure every possible scenario is accounted for and no potential for greater environmental impact is ignored.

“There were internal emails and comments that are part of the public record questioning certain aspects, and as we worked through the process those issues were ultimately resolved,” said Kloo.
These emails and communications “went back to before the project was even formally proposed,” said Hajna. “There was a scientist or an engineer, even before the project was formally proposed, who expressed opinions. As the project has been proposed, the project has been reviewed. Big projects like this require enormous amount of research. And when you go through a process like this, a healthy amount of debate is a good thing.”

Kloo strongly agreed with this assessment.

“It’s unfortunate” said Kloo, “that what’s happening – those emails and those comments – are being mischaracterized, and some of the media outlets are presenting them as though they are current concerns.”
“They are currently being taken out of context,” said Hajna.

The Carteret project is not yet underway and still requires a number of permits from the NJ DEP including land use and an air quality permit. But the DEP has gone so far as to grant Soil Safe a waiver from its original application regarding the potential for flooding, raising additional concerns from Baykeeper and organizations representing residents living upstream and around the Rahway River basin.

“The NJDEP, just last week, issued a waiver from its own flood hazard rules,” Mans said, saying that Baykeeper was also concerned about flooding, and if so what hazardous chemicals may be found in the floodwaters. ‘So essentially, this project, because it’s in a flood plain and carrying hazardous material, it was not allowed in the rules. And the state exempted it.”

In addition, Mans says the NJDEP is not requiring the property owner “to do any flood impact studies at all. And yet the site was flooded completely during Hurricane Sandy.”

“When it rains,” Mans said, “the water hitting the site right now, the rainwater, is going through the sludge, picking up contamination and heading into the Rahway River. They are proposing a cap on the site to stop the rainwater. But they have done little modeling on this. It’s not backed up with any monitoring or studies. It’s all a little unclear.”

And while the NJDEP has explained some of these “unclear” concerns to LocalSource, Baykeeper is not the group most concerned with the flooding.

The Rahway River Watershed Stormwater Advisory Board
Dan Aschenbach is the former mayor of Cranford. He was mayor when Tropical Storm Irene made his municipal office unusable. The building in Cranford was beneath several feet of water and for months the staff in the township worked out of trailers.

Residents in Cranford are no strangers to the dangers of flooding. During Irene, many dozens of homes and businesses experienced fluvial flooding as a result of the Rahway River running over its banks and reaching into a 500-year floodplain. Stormwater caused an estimated $100 million in damages to communities along the river, including Linden, Rahway, Springfield, Cranford and Millburn.

Aschenbach is now a private citizen working in New York City, but he does continue to be the head of the Rahway River Watershed Stormwater Advisory Board, an organization established after Irene to find ways to mitigate uncontrolled stormwater.

“The Board got involved in this in 2013 asking the state DEP whether the Rahway Arch project would cause flooding,” Aschenbach said recently via email communication with LocalSource. “The only specific response to our concern was a spokesman belittling the question in a newspaper story. Local engineers have questioned whether flooding would be a problem.

“If it wasn’t a concern,” he continued, “why wasn’t there a meeting to set out the fact that there is no concern, particularly given the concerns we have about flooding from Rahway to Millburn?”

Aschenbach and the Advisory Board share the same concerns that many have expressed: Why has the

NJDEP not done more to alleviate concerns, and why have they not done more to increase the certainty that any
concerns are unfounded?

Aschenbach provided LocalSource with a statement previously issued “after the DEP went ahead with the permit without directly addressing the flooding question and despite the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to evaluate,” he said.

In the statement, the Board declares that they are “outraged” that the DEP has not studied any flood impacts from the project and called for the suspension of the waiver until this concern has been satisfied.

“The potential for flooding caused by the Rahway Arch Project should be studied first and the recently granted waivers should be suspended,” the statement reads. “Board members expressed outrage at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and its decision to permit the development of the Rahway Arch project. Since April 2013, the board respectfully has asked for an evaluation to make certain that the development does not make matters worse during the next storm.”

In the case of Aschenbach and the advisory board, an initial concern nearly a year ago fell on deaf ears.

“We again petition the governor and the NJDEP to suspend the waivers granted,” the statement continues, “and allow a study be done to make as certain as one can that this project will not cause further problems … The issues seem to have been set aside or dismissed without even the courtesy of an attempt to explain that there may be no issues.”

The lengthy Advisory Board statement addresses concerns regarding both tidal and fluvial flooding, stating “we understand that for delineation of flood hazards, the tidal flooding in the Arch is more severe than the fluvial, so the tidal elevation dominates for regulatory purposes.”

Tidal flooding is flooding that heads into coastal areas from a storm surge pushing the ocean onto land. Fluvial flooding is more closely associated with the snow melt and rain water finding its way into rivers and basins, and basements for that matter.

The U.S Army Corps of Engineers provided a colloquial slogan for describing the difference between the two, generally speaking: If it flooded during Irene, it was fluvial; if it flooded during Sandy, it was tidal.

But this distinction between the flooding that has occurred along the Rahway River does little to alleviate the real and very serious concerns from Aschenbach and the Advisory Board.

“That does not mean that filling the tidal floodplain will not exacerbate fluvial flooding in adjacent areas,” the statement reads. “At this time, we don’t know how much of the fluvial 100-year or NJ Flood Hazard flow or 500-year flood is due to the tidal flooding plain outside of the river channel, and that is why the Corps’ study is vital.”

In addition to Kloo, the remediation expert at the NJDEP, LocalSource also spoke extensively with Vince Mazzei, the supervising environmental engineer and a licsensed professional engineer in New Jersey. He works for the Division of Land Use Regulation at the NJDEP. Mazzei has worked at the NJDEP since 1988.

“In New Jersey, there are basically two flavors of flooding: Tidal surge from the Atlantic Ocean and the fluvial flooding from rivers,” Mazzei said. “New Jersey historically has a lot of fluvial problems and the department over time has developed a lot of stringent measures to combat this.

“But along the ocean, you have a different dynamic,” he continued. “When you have all the different forces that come together – lunar, barometric pressure, storms – what happens is the water comes up to whatever elevation it is going to come up to. In a project like Rahway Arch, it’s an area that floods, and as part of the project that are going to bring in some fill. Some concerns are out there that this material is going to cause flooding to get worse. And they really can’t do that in a tidal system.”

Mazzei used an analogy of a bathtub to explain how in this instance, raising the elevation of a small portion of land – in this case almost 90 acres – will have little affect on something as large as the Atlantic Ocean.

“You have a bathtub full of water, and if you put your foot into that water, the water is going to have to get deeper,” he said “But this is the ocean. When you go swimming in the ocean, you’re not causing the elevation of the ocean to go up. Your displacement is inconsequential.”

But when asked if the floodwater that regularly fills this area during large storms, and which has jetted upstream in the case of Superstorm Sandy, could potentially increase upstream flooding, Mazzei said his conclusion is fairly simple.

“If this were a fluvial floodplain, then that is exactly what would happen,” he said. “And we wouldn’t allow this. But in the tidal areas, the ocean just comes up to what it’s going to come up to. It’s just going to stay in the ocean. It’s never going to reach that area unless the ocean wants to reach that area.”

According to Mazzei, increasing the height of this floodplain will likely have no impact on the upstream flooding because unless a wall is built along the entire coast, the ocean is still going to go wherever it decides to go.

“I don’t think its going to protect the people behind it either,” he said. “It will have no effect whatsoever. Nothing you do along the ocean is going to affect flood capacity.”

When asked if there was a study conducted at the site of the Rahway Arch project to back up his expert opinion, Mazzei said no.
“There is no specific report,” he said. “It’s really academic. It’s a basic premise of coastal flooding.”

But Aschenbach and the Advisory Board fear that the expert opinion of flood engineers at the NJDEP may not be enough, and question whether the site would impact fluvial flooding trends in the Rahway River Basin.

“The company that wishes to fill the site has stated that the earth berms are regularly overtopped by the Rahway River; filling the site would force the water elsewhere,” the statement continued. “This fluvial flooding may be at an elevation lower than the 100-year tide elevation, but it is potentially above the elevation at which buildings and roads flood in adjacent locations. Only computation of the fluvial floodway and of flood levels for existing and proposed conditions will provide a reliable answer to these issues.”

The statement comes to an end by reinforcing the board’s desire to simply be as certain as possible by making comparisons of existing conditions and proposed future conditions and to evaluate potential consequences that site changes may have on existing flooding conditions.

“The results may show no adverse effect, but we will not know unless reasonable analyses are completed,” the statement concludes.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to perform such a study that would compare the current conditions to possible future conditions on the site. But one thing that is important to note is that the study could take many years to complete, and in all that time, the contaminants from the sludge will continue to seep into the Rahway River and the Arthur Kill unchecked.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has studied the Rahway River basin in the past, and are currently studying the Rahway River basin now. And according to a spokesperson for the Corps, the tidal portion of their basin study revealed little related to the Rahway Arch project when it was conducted almost ten years ago.

They have, however, indicated that in the future, they intend to provide more insight into the current concerns, albeit incidentally, by revisiting the tidal basin with a new study or adding it onto the ongoing fluvial study being conducted further upstream.

“Five, possibly ten years ago, the Rahway River basin study was looking at the potential storm risk management in the tidal portion of the basin,” said Chris Gardner, Public Affairs Specialist for the New York District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “This is the same study that is now looking at Cranford and upstream.”

The fluvial study is ongoing right now, according to Gardner, and the Corps will be meeting with officials soon to discuss possible options for the Corps to continue to explore. But some years ago, he said, when the study was in its early stages, nothing was showing to have a positive Benefit Cost Ratio, or BCR, in the tidal portion of the river.

“The BCR is a comparison of the expected benefits of a project annualized over its lifespan (usually 50 years) compared to the expected costs of a project annualized over the same life span,” Gardner said via email. “It is essentially a requirement to prove a project is an economically justified use of federal tax dollars.

Tax dollars will not be used in the case of the Rahway Arch project, but benefits, according to Gardner, include things like damages prevented, “which come from structural inventories and taking into account infrastructure and other things that would be protected by a project,” he said. “Costs would include initial construction, as well as expected operation and maintenance costs.”

Again, no costs will be incurred by taxpayers according to the NJDEP.

In the case of the Rahway Arch project, Gardner says the Corps has decided to revisit the site and look into the tidal flooding once again, but has not yet decided the best approach.

“Once we determine the best way forward,” Gardner said, “we would then sign a formal partnering agreement with the NJDEP, which would signify the official beginning of studying the tidal portion.”

In December, the Star-Ledger reported that the Corps decided to use funds from the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act and would present the NJDEP with the agreement in February.

But Gardner said this has not happened yet because the Corps is still trying to determine the best approach to the project.

“We have not done that. We have not actually provided them with a draft of any agreement for them to sign. We are still looking at the best way to approach looking at the tidal flooding and the Rahway River. It never came to pass,” he said. “The timeline was not met.”

“Long story short, what folks are referring to, we said that during our tidal study, we would look at the potential impacts of flooding from the Rahway Arch project,” Gardner said in a phone interview with LocalSource. “However, it’s not as if we will issue a report saying this will or will not induce flooding. During the course of our tidal basin study, we will look at the hydraulics and the current and see what the basin looks like now. And for comparison, we will look at the site with future conditions, assuming the project was implemented.

“Here is the current hydrology and here is the future hydrology predicting the site will be completed,” he continued. “We are not going to do anything specific to the Rahway Arch, but the data and models that we will be producing on the risk in the river basin could potentially be of use to folks interested in the impact.”

Aschenbach, the Rahway River Floodwater Advisory Board, and the environmental group NY/NJ Baykeeper believe the NJDEP should put the entire project on hold until this study is completed. However the Corps has no timetable on the completion of the study, and studies by the Corps can take a very long time to complete for a number of reasons.

“Historically, there is no single general length of time for each of these studies to take as they all may have different scopes and cover different size areas with different factors to be considered,” said Gardner. “One of the reasons an ongoing study can often take a long time is what is called ‘incremental funding.’”

When a study is incrementally funded by Congress, it may receive a portion of the funds needed in one fiscal year, and none the next. Meaning, if a study required $3 million to complete, it may only receive $300,000 in its first year and none in the second, and then $2 million in the third. The funding is entirely in the hands of congress, and sometimes studies are stalled for long periods of time by a lack of funds, and sometimes they are funded up front entirely.

“This is generally what would be referred to as funding constraints,” Gardner added. “Rahway would be an example of a study that has been subject to funding constraints over the years, which would be a contributing factor for delays over the years on this study.”

However, the post-Sandy study of coastal storm risk management for the tidal portion that has been accepted but is still being considered for the best possible execution would be funded up front through the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, according to Gardner.

‘We wouldn’t approve a project that we think wouldn’t work.’ 

While the length of time it would take to study the tidal portion of the Rahway River basin and the comparison to future conditions is unknown, a few facts do seem pretty certain.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the study has not started, and has not even been proposed as of yet.

According to the NJDEP, the Rahway Arch site in Carteret is currently contaminating the Rahway River and the Arthur Kill, and has been for more than 50 years, and a plan is in place to contain it.

“There is a serious environmental threat to the river that needs to be addressed,” said the NJDEP. “And this project will address it. We wouldn’t approve a project that we think wouldn’t work.”

NEXT WEEK: Many of the eyebrows that have been raised regarding this project have come from an altogether different source. In addition to the companies and local governments that anticipate making money off of contaminated wetlands, nearly every politician in the surrounding area, including local mayors, county freeholders and state senators have already seen their campaign coffers increase at the hands of Soil Safe, the company applying to perform the work.

The history of Soil Safe, the company’s political connections and the capping process being used will be explored in the next issue of Union County LocalSource.