Mary Altaffer, Associated Press
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.
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