The former bulk chemical packaging facility had been storing over 1,600 abandoned, mislabeled and mishandled drums containing hazardous chemicals that posed what the EPA called "serious risks" to the surrounding surrounding communities and the environment in Passaic and Bergen counties.
"This site was a horrible mess when EPA first stepped in," said George Pavlou, acting regional administrator. "It reeked of caustic chemicals and solvents, some of which were leaking from rusted drums."
"Despite the difficult nature of handling drums that in most cases contained unknown chemicals, EPA was able to get the job done by working closely with the local and state authorities, which were extremely helpful in the successful cleanup," Pavlou said.
An initial investigation was triggered on October 29, 2008, when the EPA got a call from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection with a report that chemicals were being released from the Abrachem facility.
EPA investigators found that Abrachem was improperly storing drums and bulk containers of known and unknown chemicals in 17 shipping containers. Drums were leaking, and a strong chemical odor pervaded the facility.
EPA personnel contacted both the operator and the owner of the facility, but they denied access on three occasions. EPA referred the case to the U.S. Department of Justice and on January 8, 2009, a federal magistrate issued an access warrant allowing EPA to enter the property to remove the chemicals.
Drums of unknown, hazardous and explosive chemicals staged for sampling at the Abrachem facility (Photo courtesy U.S. EPA)
If EPA determines that a site that contains abandoned chemicals presents an immediate and substantial threat to public health and safety, the agency can take immediate action as authorized by the Superfund law.
With warrant in hand, EPA and its contractor, Earth Tech Inc., stabilized the site and staged supplies and air monitoring equipment while preparing to deal with the hazardous chemicals.
Workers wearing protective suits took the drums from the shipping containers and moved them into the facility for staging and sampling to determine the identity of the chemicals inside.
The bomb squad was called in February, when workers opening overpack drums for sampling found crystalline deposits characteristic of explosives. When they opened one of the drums, a grayish white smoke fumed out.
EPA personnel called the Clifton Fire Department, which notified the Passaic County Bomb Squad. As explosives experts entered the premises, an acetylene odor began to seep into the site command post.
In all, six suspicious drums were identified. Emergency officials made evacuation plans, while the fire department and other response agencies laid protective foam lines. Explosives specialists remotely opened and handled the drums without incident.
Over the course of the seven-month cleanup, hundreds of the containers were given back to the various companies of origination, while others were disposed of by EPA at licensed hazardous waste disposal facilities.
Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.