With a small group of state environmental officials looking on from two rows of seats in the right corner of the room, dozens of elected officials, residents and environmental advocates blasted a state proposal to settle claims related Ciba-Geigy Superfund site in Toms River, the cause of monumental environmental damage and a deadly cancer cluster.
The rallying cries to oppose the settlement, which would consist of turning about 1,000 acres of contaminated land into a public park and museum, were driven as much by anger over what one environmentalist called a “cloud of secrecy” as the lack of financial repercussions for BASF, the German chemical conglomerate that inherited Ciba-Geigy’s liability for the site. The state announced the settlement proposal in a press release in December, but never sought input from local officials, notified them of the proposal, nor were any public meetings held on the settlement pact.
“Toms River is known for two things – the 1998 Little League World Series championship team, and the book, ‘Toms River,’ about the largest Superfund site in America,” said Mayor Maurice “Mo” Hill, looking toward the state officials gathered to the side. “They chose to poison us for greed and corporate profits. The deal you have negotiated lets them get away with it again – get away with murder.”
Hill called opposing the settlement a “David versus Goliath” fight, and implored the state to be “on the side of David.”
“BASF, like Ciba, is playing us and the NJDEP with this settlement,” Hill said, referencing the millions of dollars Toms River taxpayers handed over to BASF after the company won a tax appeal after representing the contaminated property as being functionally worthless. Still, the settlement forged between the corporation and the state would allow BASF to retain ownership of about 250 acres of land that, conceivably, could be developed commercially.
Toms River Councilman Dan Rodrick, a political opponent of Hill, has suggested using eminent domain to take the 250 acres from BASF using the same figures the company proffered in court. Hill has publicly stated that he opposes any development at the site.
Peter Hibbard, a luminary in the fight against what many see as staggering corporate malfeasance at the site, excoriated the settlement proposal, stating that portions even beyond the 1,300 acres within the Superfund zone remain contaminated.
“This agreement was negotiated under a cloud of secrecy,” said Hibbard, who serves as president of Ocean County Citizens for Clean Water. “This is unacceptable in a democracy. The people have concerns that should have been addressed up front, and they should have a chance to plan what it happening in their own community.”
Hill has proposed that in addition to preserving the 1,000 acres from future development, the state modify the settlement to transfer ownership of the remaining 250 acres to the township and establish a fund to compensate victims of the environmental damage, including potential future victims. He has also proposed that any museum or informational building feature exhibits on the cancer cluster and local residents who suffered from its effects.
“We will not accept a potential environmental disaster because state officials did not consult with the experts who live here,” said Hibbard. “Why were the citizens of this community excluded?”
Ciba-Geigy began its existence of the Toms River Chemical Company, which manufactured dyes at the plant, located west of the Garden State Parkway, off Oak Ridge Parkway. The company was sold and merged on several occasions over the decades, and in 1996, a merger of Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy created Novartis, from which Ciba was spun off. Ciba ultimately merged with BASF in 2008.
The company was found to be responsible for myriad environmental damage, including the pumping of toxic chemicals into both the Toms River and the Atlantic Ocean through a submarine outfall pipe. The company has been accused of deliberately contaminating the Toms River because the cedar-colored water would have been able to mask the color of pollutants. The outfall pipe system was used as a profit-making opportunity as well, with 29 entities – including the federal government – sending waste to be disposed of. Ultimately, toxins reached groundwater supplies and a contamination plume formed, resulting in higher than normal rates of cancer and other conditions among otherwise-healthy people in Toms River.
“As a child, I grew up here while our land was being polluted,” said Christine Girtain, a science teacher from Toms River who was recently named New Jersey Teacher of the Year. “My students don’t know about Ciba-Geigy. Some of them are now reading the Toms River book as part of their research.”
Girtain said that when she was a child, her class entered a poster contest to raise awareness about endangered species. Her teacher had the class draw themselves.
“When I sat there and I looked at that [settlement] plan … how could that be all that is there, for all that’s gone on?” she said. “I hope they use this opportunity to make a stand, make a change, do something that hasn’t been done before. They have a chance to turn this around.”
“We got sick, and we couldn’t figure out why we got sick,” said Kenny Andersch, who grew up on the banks of the river before moving to the Ortley Beach section and founding the popular Ortley Stone and Gravel business. “I didn’t know they had an outfall pipe there that was causing all of it.”
Wayne Dinsmore, a retired U.S. Navy officer, offered his own tragic story.
“I retired from the Navy at Lakehurst, and I brought my family here and settled in Toms River because they had the best schools,” he said. “I settled one mile from Ciba-Geigy, as the crow flies. We enjoyed living there, and in about four years my wife was pregnant. He [our son] lasted only a few minutes after he was born. A few years later, my wife died of cancer. ”
“Even considering letting people come onto this property is insane,” said Barry Bendar, a longtime environmental advocate from Lacey Township.
The administration of Gov. Phil Murphy has been criticized over the settlement, with some questioning the motives behind the comparatively light penalties it imposes on BASF. Murphy previous served as ambassador to Germany, and has openly advocated for New Jersey to become more business-friendly toward German corporations.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection did not schedule any meetings or public forums on the proposal, which prompted Save Barnegat Bay, a local group, to host the “Speak Out” event this week. The state is accepting only written comments from the public, however speakers at the event were asked to fill out information cards so their statements could be attributed to them and sent to Trenton. New Jersey officials agreed to extent a 30-day public comment period – announced shortly before the Christmas holiday, and contrary to the normal policy of a 60-day period – to Feb. 3, however some have shared concerns that the extension was never published in the state register.
“This nightmare is not over,” said Hill, with a nod toward the DEP officials. “Had Toms River been invited to participate in your discussions, instead of ignored, we would not be here tonight. This is a David versus Goliath fight, and it’s time for the DEP to stand with David.”
Despite the settlement, it is expected that ongoing cleanup and remediation efforts at the site are more than 30 to 40 years away from completion.