UNION COUNTY, NJ — As elected officials and ExxonMobil battle over billions of dollars in legal settlements related to toxic contaminants in New Jersey groundwater, communities that are home to these refineries are often in the dark about how these chemicals could affect their health.
While much has been made about the proposed $225 million settlement between the state and ExxonMobil, little has been said about the chemical-laden soup that has been percolating in the ground near residents living in the shadow of the Linden refinery.
After an investigation by LocalSource into this aspect of the ground and waterway contamination at the Bayway facility, it was discovered chemicals are still being released into the groundwater and waterways.
Each year, industrial facilities like the former ConocoPhillips, previously owned by ExxonMobil from 1909 to 1993, continue to release hundreds of millions of pounds of chemicals into the air and waterways that have been linked to cancer, and developmental, reproductive, neurological and respiratory disorders.
These carcinogens, according to 2012 reports by the DEP, OSHA and the U.S. EPA, can make people sick with a variety of illnesses including lung, stomach and liver cancer, leukemia, reproductive problems, anemia, birth defects and neurological problems.
According to one report commissioned by the NJDEP in 2006 that focused on contamination at the Bayway and Bayonne facilities, crude oil and refined petroleum products were released through spills and leaks. Exxon never disputed that these products, which included such hazardous chemicals such as benzene, chromium and arsenic, were released.
This contamination is well documented for both sites. For example, in 1977 it was estimated that seven million gallons of oil, collected in areas ranging in depth from 7 to 17 feet were contained in the soil and groundwater at both sites.
Groundwater, according to the NJDEP, is an extremely important natural resource, supplying more than 900 million gallons of water a day to residents, and providing more than half of the state population with drinking water.
In fact, in a June 2014 Environment N.J. Research and Policy Center report “Wasting Our Waterways,” in 2012, the last data available, New Jersey waterways were rated as the 12th worst in the nation in terms of environmental contamination.
This report documented the potential health impacts of these toxins, using the most recent data reported to the U.S. EPA for 2012. The data indicated the Houston-based Phillips 66 Bayway facility spilled 2.8 million pounds of more than two dozen chemicals into Morses Creek, which flows into the Arthur Kill.
The toxins included nitrate compounds, which cause blue baby syndrome; xylene, toluene and ethylbenzene, all of which cause nervous system and kidney problems.
Based on an inventory report by the EPA that focused on toxic pollutants released by refineries, in 2012 the ConocoPhillips facility in Linden was the second largest polluter in the state, dumping 2,084,440 pounds of toxins alone, including benzene, ethylene glycol, lead, butyl alcohol and toluene into Morses Creek.
According to this report, these toxins cause a variety of cancers, including those involving the reproductive system, while benzene can affect the way children grow, learn and behave.
This is not the first time the Bayway refinery in Linden has been under scrutiny by the NJDEP and OSHA.
In 2003 the NJDEP and OSHA put the refinery under the microscope when abnormal cancer rates were found among workers at the Bayway plant in Linden. The refinery also has been cited close to 200 times since 2005 for state regulation violations. In 2010, an investigative report by WABC-TV characterized the Bayway refinery as a “repeat offender of environmental regulations,” ranking it as the 32nd worst polluter in the country.
However, since then, the NJDEP said, ConocoPhillips has taken steps to alleviate some of these violations, including auditing and reducing benzene emissions. These steps, though, do not take into consideration the toxins already in the groundwater and waterways.
ExxonMobil also came under fire in 2007 when New York State sued the company over a spill that happened in 1950 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Investigators found an explosion occurred as a result of petroleum and other industrial pollutants leaking from storage bunkers. The petroleum products pooled underground, they said, and eventually spontaneously combusted.
Inspectors also discovered that chemicals had been leaking into the soil since the 19th century, but after the explosion, which happened in 1950, nothing was done to clean up the site.
Decades later people living in the area began to experience mysterious ailments, according to reports. Many cases of these illnesses were documented in a book called “The Ripple Effect,” by Alex Prud’homme, who wrote about the lasting effects of industrial pollution in the soil and groundwater supplies of this heavily populated New York City neighborhood.
While many people did not connect the dots, others did. One of those families, who lived not far from where the explosion occurred, had a son who contracted osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. While it is unclear what causes this type of cancer, medical experts do know it is associated with exposure to chemicals.
According to the American Cancer Society, osteosarcoma is not a common cancer, with only 900 cases of the disease diagnosed annually, on average. However, in this particular neighborhood, there were multiple cases of this type of cancer.
By 2010 the oil spill beneath Brooklyn was estimated to contain at least 17 million to 30 million gallons of hydrocarbons and other toxic compounds, in pockets up to 25 feet deep.
At the low end this represents 6 million more gallons of oil than the 10.8 million gallons of crude oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989 and 9 million more gallons than the oil spills that coated New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The contaminants that settled into this area of Brooklyn, which included Newtown Creek, the 3.8-mile inlet of the East River that runs through the neighborhood, were so thick and viscous that locals called the sludge “black mayonnaise.” Among the toxins found was benzene, one of the toxins found at the Linden Bayway site.
Chemicals that have been in the soil or groundwater for decades, such as benzene, do not break down in the environment quickly. However, according to reports issued by the NYDEP, the longer these chemicals remain in the environment, the more likely they are to cause health problems.
In 2010 the Newtown Creek was declared a Superfund site, meaning the federal government could mandate a cleanup. While the Superfund law allows for the use of federal funds for remediation, most of the cost will be borne by ExxonMobil. It is expected this cleanup could take 20 years.
New York State sued ExxonMobil and in the end the mega company agreed to pay $25 million in damages to settle the lawsuit, the largest single payment of its kind in the state’s history.
The settlement also required Exxon to pay for the cleanup of the spill, which contaminated at least 55 acres of the Brooklyn community. In comparison, at the Linden refinery contamination site, it is estimated there are 750 acres of petroleum and toxins to clean up, some of which have affected towns beyond this municipality.
For example, in 1990 more than a half-million gallons of oil leaked into the Arthur Kill, the result of a major spill from a 12-inch underground pipeline leading from the Linden ExxonMobil Bayway refinery to the Bayonne terminal. The leak affected nine-miles of shoreline along the Arthur Kill, including Woodbridge Township, a few miles away.
According to a Jan. 12, 1990 New York Times article, ExxonMobil officials said their leak-detection system had been giving off false alarms for 12 years, so on the night the leak occurred, it was more than six hours before operators began to investigate the cause.
For those living in the Crampton Avenue flood zone area in Woodbridge Township, which borders the Arthur Kill, flooding had become a part of life. What they did not know was how these floodwaters carried dangerous toxins and chemicals into their backyards.
Residents told LocalSource that people began to get sick about ten years ago. These residents, whose homes were recently bought out by the state Blue Acres program because of the continued flooding hazard, have many questions, none of which are being answered.
“My concern is that every one of these contaminants are 100 percent cancer causing and the state knew about this back in 2005,” said one former resident, pointing out that even though there were only four houses on one particular block, over the last ten years seven cases of cancer were diagnosed.
Of the seven cases, they said, four of those stricken have died of brain, liver and other cancers. Most were in their early 40’s.
While it remains unknown at this point if the Linden neighborhoods adjacent to the Bayway refinery have similar cancer statistics, however, more than 15 residents LocalSource spoke with last week admitted there has been an unusual number of cancer cases and deaths in the area over the years.
To date, however, there is no published study by the state health department about the potential of a cancer cluster or related inquiries.