Sunday, June 22, 2003
Ex-senator in new role; critics say he shielded boro polluter for 18 years
By Chris Neidenberg
(Key passages in bold letters)
In a major and controversial development. a federal judge has named former U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli - longtime friend of Maywood polluter Stepan Chemical Company - "a special master" who could oversee efforts to compel that Honeywell Inc. perform a massive cleanup of chromium contamination on a Jersey City site off the Hackensack River.
U.S. District Court Judge Dennis Cavanaugh named him a court-appointed officer in the case last May. The once -powerful Democratic federal lawmaker resurfaced eight months after the one-term senator, a former seven-term Ninth District congressman, shockingly withdrew from his Senate re-election campaign very late in the race. He was running against Republican challenger Douglas Forrester.
Torricelli withdrew from his Senate run due to ethics problems that surfaced from his longtime association with convicted illegal campaign financier David Chang of Cresskill.
Chang was sent to jail following his conviction on charges stemming from actions in raising monies for Torricelli. The then-senator was not prosecuted for his own role in the affair. Yet Torricelli drew a strong rebuke from then-U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, who submitted a report on his actions to the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee last year. The committee censured the now-former legislator based - in part - on facts contained in White's referral. This ultimately triggered Torricelli's forced exit.
Private citizen Torricelli received the Jersey City job after Cavanaugh, in a major ruling on a lawsuit brought by a coalition of local church and environmental groups, ordered that Honeywell perform a thorough cleanup of a field polluted under a predecessor company it acquired (Mutual Chemical Company).
Published reports have estimated that such a massive removal program could cost Honeywell, a U.S. defense contractor, upwards of $400 million. The company reportedly wanted to push a much less costly option: capping the field and leaving much of the contamination in place. It has vowed to appeal Cavanaugh's order, which was welcomed by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The DEP had imposed a longstanding order upon Honeywell to remove the toxic waste in a manner the judge proscribed. The state is concerred over long-term exposire effects of chromium dust, a known carcinogen.
Yet Torricelli's well-documented ethics problems did not stop Cavanaugh from naming him chief fact-finder, who would be paid by Honywell, in this major environmental case. The judge has come under fire by some critics who have questioned Torricelli's own credentials in qualifying to get the job. Also, Torricelli recommended Cavanaugh for this judgeship while a senator, in invoking the privilege of senatorial courtesy.
In fact, Torricelli, who will play a role in assessing the overall costs and scope of the Honeywell cleanup (assuming the judge's order is upheld), accepted campaign donations from Honeywell and Stepan throughout his long legislative career.
Still, the former senator's appointment was praised in published reports by, among others, the group, Hackensack Riverkeeper, and environmental lawyer Edward Lloyd.
Yet Torricelli's own Maywood record and actions, based on reams of public documents, suggest that - at the very least - the local Jersey City groups fighting Honeywell have great cause for concern.
Critics with The Concerned Citizens of Maywood (CCM) long derided Torricelli and his Maywood allies as the major stumbling blocks in trying to secure a massive and permanent cleanup of the borough's own sordid thorium/chemical Superfund mess, largely created by Stepan Chemical and its predecessor, Maywood Chemical Works.
Stepan profited in selling large portions of Maywood Chemical's former land to other companies. Ultimately. businesses such as AMF-Voit (now Federal Exrpess) and the Sears Distrubution Center were built upon part of Maywood Chemical's old property.
In fact, there are major parallels between the histories of the Honeywell and Stepan sites with one major exception: through his legislative actions in Maywood 20 years ago, Torricelli made the federal government - using the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) - the responsible party for Maywood's thorium (separate from chemical) problem.
This, despite the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) already had designated Stepan - which subsequently donated campaign cash to Torricelli - "a potentially responsible party (PRP)" for "radioactive contamination."
In contrast, Honeywell, as a private party, must deal directly with the DEP. It cannot rely on the federal government's help (and its tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies) through a similar political agreement.
In Maywood, Torricelli acted as a freshman lawmaker and claimed that his arranging the "DOE-Stepan agreement" would accelerate the cleanup. The then-freshman congressman explained that he acted at the time, due to his own questions over Stepan's liability for the thorium part of Maywood's overall cleanup.
His 1983 actions were supported - and assisted locally by leading members of Maywood's Democratic Party - chiefly, then- (and current) Councilman Thomas Richards, then-Councilman James Panos (in 1984, he became mayor) and then-Borough Attorney William Rupp.
At the local level, Rupp negotiated the "memorandum of understanding" that set up the framework for the Maywood Interim Storage Site (MISS). The MISS was created as an outgrowth of Torricelli's agreement with his campaign donor - that bypassed and obstructed the EPA's own aggressive enforcement efforts.
To this day, Richards, who counts himself as a strong ally of Stepan, vehemently opposes any effort to abrogate Torricelli's original agreement to try compelling that Stepan pay even more in financing the costly cleanup (Stepan is only liable for chemicals). He and Stepan have insisted that the company is not legally liable for any of the thorium - despite the EPA's earlier "PRP" designation.
Yet, acccording to a DOE summary of a 1981 meeting involving the department and Torricelli's predecessor representing the borough, then Republican Rep. Marge Roukema (R-5), "there never was a contract between Maywood Chemical and the federal government" for the manufacture of products using thorium.
Still, Torricelli intervened in 1983 a short time after Stepan counsel Richard Jacobson told the EPA his client would agree to directly finance the remedial investigation of thorium (chemicals were not even discussed at that time).
This DOE-Stepan agreement stands, 20 years after it was originally negotiated and weakened the EPA's direct authority.
Because of it, and Torricelli, taxpayers represented by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (which replaced the DOE locally in 1997) - and not Stepan - are financially liable for all remaining radiological contamination.
The efffort, that will ultimately affect roughly 300,000 cubic yards of tainted soil buried underground in Maywood, is being directed by corps Site Manager Allen Roos. Even though his agency (and the DOE before it) were given lead authority fo oversee the thorium cleanup under the shakiest of legal premises, Roos - branded as "arrogant" by CCM Environmental Chairman Mike Nolan - has been trying to ram through some kind of soil treatment program for thorium. His proposal is opposed by the local governing body (after many years of indifference), and reportedly, the state DEP. Roos' actions certainly contributed to the feds' minimum eight-year delay in releasing any proposed plan to the public.
The latest dispute could be a factor in the corps' continuing to hold up implementing a final ROD to clean up thorium in soil and under buildings - ten months after the corps held a public hearing on this part of the proposed plan.
This scenario is in stark contrast to the Honeywell case. That's because the company (unlike Stepan) is not being subsidized by a federal agency (the taxpayers) to clean up any part of its site. And more than likely, citizen activists trying to clean up the Jersey City location have not had to engage in a nasty fight with their own local elected officials - as has long been the case in Maywood - since Democratic and Republican officials have consistently been in Stepan's corner.
In fact, in an interview seven years ago, an honest (perhaps even courageous) Maywood EPA Project Manager Angela Carpenter admitted that the efforts of Torricelli - and Rupp and Richards locally - indeed weakened the EPA's authority for dealing directly with Stepan in aggresively moving for one site-wide clean up of thorium and chemicals.
At the time, Carpenter explained that adding the DOE to the mix imposed an extra layer of bureaucracy. Otherwise, Carpenter said then, Maywood would have remained "a garden variety Superfund site."
TORRICELLI LONG SUPPORTED STEPAN CHEMICAL COMPANY IN MAYWOOD AND SEEMED INDIFFERENT TO THE BOROUGH'S CLEANUP CAUSE.
A federal judge recently designated former U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli as a "special master," that is, a court-appointed officer who could (if the judge's order is upheld on appeal) oversee a massive cleanup of chromium-tainted soil on a site owned by Honeywell Inc. This tract is near the Hackensack River in Jersey City.
Yet an analysis of Torricellli's long and controversial involvement in Maywood's own sordid thorium affair, and his relationship with Stepan Chemical Company, at the very least, raises legitimate concerns for Jersey City citizens who successfully swayed the same judge to force that Honeywell remove contamination.
Based on public records, and past press accounts, Torricelli in Maywood:
A. Took actions as a lawmaker that, critics complained, diverted
financial responsibility for removing site-wide radiological (though not chemical) contamination from Stepan to the federal government through his "DOE-Stepan" agreement. Since that time, hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been questionably spent out of the U.S. Treasury - including while the federal government knowingly hid a proposed cleanup plan from Maywood residents for at least eight years. After negotiating the deal, Torricelli accepted campaign donations from the Stepan Political Action Committee (PAC). The PAC has been run by company President (and prominent Chicago-area Democrat) F. Quinn Stepan.
B. Asked the DOE and EPA to finally issue a record of decision (ROD) on the entire Superfund site in 1991 but soon abandoned those efforts for some reason. In fact. Torricelli let the feds stall on issuing any kind of ROD to his local constituents for his remaining 10 years in public office. A partial ROD, only addressing the cleanup of radioactive contamination in soil and under buildings, was not released until almost eight months after he left the U.S. Senate.
C. Took a clear contradictory position at the Wayne thorium site in terms of making polluters pay for cleanups. In 1999, Torricelli wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice demanding that it abrogate an agreement with the WR Grace Company to have taxpayers subsidize Grace's cleanup costs, while remaining silent on the very same question as it related to his own campaign contributor. In fact, the architect of the "DOE-Stepan agreement" told the justice department he was outraged over the fact that taxpayers were paying the "polluter's" costs in Wayne. Yet during his 1996 Senate campaign, Torricelli's then chief of staff, Jamie Fox (current chief of staff to Governor James McGreevey) explained that Torricelli acted to shield polluter Stepan Chemical because he wanted "to help a businessman in his district."
D. Falsely promised Maywoodians that their community would be fully cleaned up by the end of 1985 through his "DOE-Stepan" agreement. In fact, no formal cleanup plan - dealing with the vast bulk of Maywood's buried tainted soil (and only for thorium) - was released until last summer- 17 years after this pledge.
E. Also falsely promised, a number of times, that no more toxic contamination in Lodi would be transported through Maywood.
F. Openly allied himself with the likes of former Democratic Mayor Thomas Murphy and current Democratic Councilman (and mayoral candidate) Thomas Richards as they both repeatedly verbally attacked and badgered critics of Maywood's worst polluter (Stepan Chemical) This, despite credible evidence suggesting there are problems, at the plant, and with the entire cleanup program. For instance, Murphy, in reacting to attempts by citizens to sue Stepan Chemical for causing sickness and death (a matter the company settled out of court) called members of The Concerned Citizens of Maywood (CCM) "environmental terrorists." Richards has repeatedly - and falsely - insisted that some of these crtics have distorted information in various government documents to make their case - even when the language is quite clear.
G. Praised then-Mayor John Steuert - a Republican Torricelli/Stepan Chemical sympathizer - for kicking CCM members and others off Steuert's thorium advisory committee in 1994. Torricelli blasted them, even as they had documented evidence showing that he took his campaign donor off the hook financially for the vast bulk of Maywood.s radiological problem.
For more detail on Torricelli's role in the Maywood/Stepan Chemical thorium mess, please read, "Richards still cozy with borough's worst polluter Parts I and II," "Richards, Torrricelli and the thorium facts" and, "Torricelli's sad Maywod legacy.".