Saturday, July 19, 2003


Rep. keeps sending letters to agency; has little clout in getting action

By Chris Neidenberg

Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) has sent a new letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pushing the agency to move forward in disclosing a final record of decision (ROD) spelling out the details of a major part of Maywood's radioactive waste cleanup, Democratic Councilman Thomas Richards announced June 25.

Additionally, Richards, who most assuredly will try keeping a high profile in a quest to make it seem like he's advocating for the borough in this area during his mayoral run, announced efforts with Rothman are continuing in getting federal legislation passed that transfers ownership of the Maywood Interim Storage Site (MISS) from the federal government to the municipality - once the site is certified as cleaned up.

"He (Rothman) has sent a letter to Col. (John) O'Dowd, who is area chief for the Corps of Engineers," the councilman reported, referring to the head of the corps' New York District.

Richards added that he has conveyed to Rothman the borough's continued concerns over "delays in the cleanup."

Yet Richards' latest announcement - made during the council meeting that night - fell short in terms of assuring residents that the council, Rothman and the corps, would convene a meeting to discuss the municipality's concerns in this area.

Richards told resident Edward Kaminski on May 28 that such a session might occur. Any council meeting directly involving Rothman and the corps, and convened in a public forum, would be a significant milestone.

Rothman has, thus far, declined to take a visibly high profile in directly involving himself (through steps such as attending public meetings) as an advocate for Maywood's interests.

He has pretty much been impotent in effecting any kind of response from the corps that would significantly help the borough's cause. Under Rothman's watch, the corps, as led by Site Manager Allen Roos, has essentially remained an "Army of occupation" in politically weak Maywood, made even weaker - in terms of advocating on the thorium issue - due to the conduct of its public officials.

Roos is well aware of this, and has managed to take advantage of the situation. In fact, the powerful federal agency has almost totally dictated the terms as to how it has operated at the site since coming to the borough in 1997.

Still, Roos and the corps are well aware by now that their participation in Maywood solely resulted from a prior political agreement - negotiated by then- Rep. Robert Torricelli (D-9) on behalf of his campaign donor, Stepan Chemical Company. The deal stifled the EPA's efforts to make Stepan financially liable for both radiological and chemical contamination. Had that not been done, the West Hunter Avenue plant (and not the corps or U.S. Department of Energy - DOE) would have had to address cleaning up radioactive contamination - along with chemicals - as the EPA originally intended.

Rothman and Richards still oppose ending Torricelli's original agreement shielding Stepan Chemical, though Rothman has joined Richards in supporting a mandatory and complete excavation of Maywood's remaining soils.

As an example of Rothman's keeping a low Maywood profile, neither he nor any of his aides attended the critical Aug. 28 public hearing on the corps' proposed radioactive waste cleanup plan for soils and buildings. The corps, in fact, has taken 11 months in trying to finalize this part of the ROD since that hearing - and has still not provided any plan for addressing radioactive contamination in groundwater. Rothman, however, has submitted written comments to the corps opposing its proposal and backing full excavarion of all of Maywood's dirt.

During the 2002 hearing, residents, as well as Richards and Republican Councilman Thomas Gaffney (his GOP mayoral opponent), demanded that the corps implement a plan to fully excavate and permanently dispose outside Maywood roughly 300,000 cubic yards of toxic thorium-tainted soil, buried under large commercial properties.

Instead, Rothman has opted to use Richards as his surrogate and just keeps writing letters. as he did in early 2001, when Rothman wrote to O'Dowd's predecessor, Col. William Pearce.

At the time, Rothman questioned when the corps might release a proposed plan dealing with the vast bulk of Maywood's contamination. Despite Rothman's prodding, the plan continued to be hidden from his Maywood constituents for over a year after he wrote Pearce.

Also during Rothman's tenure, the congressman late in 2000 attended a secretive meeting at the thorium site with Richards, then-Borough Administrator John Perkins, corps officials, as well as 37th district Democratic state legislators (Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg, then-Assemblyman Charles "Ken" Zisa and State Senator Byron Baer) to evaluate the corps' unpopular proposal to try using soil separation within Maywood (which the governing body has since opposed). In a letter sent to Rothman and the other lawmakers at the time, Perkins boasted that "no public or press" would be invied to this meeting.

Additionally, Rothman allowed the corps, and the DOE before it, to conceal from the taxpayers the amount of money the federal government spent operating the now-defunct Cooperative Guidance Group (CGG) on thorium, in violation of the Federal Advisory Coxmmittee Act.

This law required the CGG to maintain a public file on all expenditures, which the DOE, and the corps simply ignored.

This group of residents and officials convened during 1997-98 before the corps abolished the body, previously set up by the DOE.

In this instance, as has been policy, Rothman simply kept writing letters and accomplished nothing.

To this day, exactly how much in public money was spent on the body and its facillitator, a Somerset County PR firm named Holt and Ross, remains a mystery - despite the law.

Rothman, Lautenberg visit Maywood and act like nothing's wrong

Despite their lapses in conduct, and judgment, on the important thorium issue, Rothman and U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) have recently visited Maywood and attended ceremonial events, while steering clear of the controversy.

Rothman rode in Maywood's annual Fourth of July parade caravan, while Lautenberg attended the June 28 dedication of Maywood's renovated and historic Maywood Avenue train station.

In fact, in 1994, Lautenberg tried promoting implementing a thorium cleanup plan that woulld have remediated most of the borough's tainted soil to a radiological cleanup level of 15 picocuries per gram (pcI/g). EPA officials once warned this criteria would designate Maywood as "a permanent storage site."

This decision followed a lengthy cleanup criteria dispute involving the DOE and the EPA. which ended when EPA simply bowed to the DOE's demand that it accept the lesser criteria. Yet, due to the opposition of the state Department of Environmental Protection, the level was never enacted. But the corps is still trying to force through the exact same criteria today.

More than eight years after Lautenberg praised this decision, his politcal ally, Richards, came out against using 15 pcI/g anywhere in Maywood during the Aug. 28 hearing. Though he once questioned its necessity, Richards (as well as Gaffney) endorsed at the time mandating all borough soil be cleaned to the tighter threshold of five pCI/g. The EPA once cited this criteria as the accepted "health-based" radiological cleanup level, one that awould ensure a "one in a million" cancer risk.

A note of caution: Richards seemed to somewhat back away from this stand - and revert back to his old position - in his 2002 council campaign literature. At that time, he said Maywood's properties should at a minimum "be cleaned to background levels (which doesn't necessarily guarantee five pcI/g)."

Rothman has sent the corps written comments backing full excavation

For those supporting a vast and exhaustive thorium cleanup, Rothman has urged the corps to enact this policy, even though he wants his ccinstituents (and not Stepan Chemical) to pick up the tab.

In formally commenting on the corps' soil/buildings proposed plan, as allowed by law, last Oct. 23, the congressman wrote in a letter to Roos: "There is a lack of convincing evidence that alternative #4 (excavation with a treatment option) will work as designed and also a risk that this plan will slow remediation of the final 24 sites by drawing resources away from the project."

He continued, "The residents of Maywood want to assure that all soil, at any level, is removed. I share that goal."

Rothman added: "My obligation to my constituents of the Ninth Congressional District of New Jersey is to ensure that the principal threat to the health and humans and to the environment - the radiological contamination in the soil - is eliminated in the most expeditious, cost-effective manner possible. Nothing short of the removal of all contaminated soil would assure that engineers would not miss a single speck of contaminated soil."

Rothman's loyalty to Richards is unabashed

Given that Richards is running for mayor, politics being as they are, one cannot disciunt the
possibility that he and Rothman will try making a grand announcement regarding the corps' partial ROD - assuming the agency even promulgates it sometime this year - before the November election.

Richards, whose own role as an advocate on behalf of polluter Stepan Chemical throughout well over 20 years of Maywood's thorium mess - raises many troubling questions - and, with any aggressive and strong oversight from a vigilant and unified political opposition, could very well have been driven out of public office for such conduct by now - will most likely serve as Rothman's chief deputy and messenger over the remaining four months of his mayoral contest.

With all his (Richards') well-documented ethical and moral lapses regarding thorium, Rothman has in fact commended Richards for his "integrity," and quite possibly, will use the weight of his offfice in helping his loyal Maywood ally score some political points in the upcoming election.

Richards has served in this capacity before, particularly as a loyal deputy to then-Rep. Robert Torricelli - who preceded Rothman as Maywood's congressman before moving onto the U.S. Senate. The results were disastrous to say the least.

For instance, in the mid-1980s, a partisan Richards assailed then-38th district Republican Assemblymen Louis Kosco and William "Pat" Schuber for sponsoring a resolution calling for the federal government to clean up Maywood in five years. At the time, Richards excoriated the two lawmakers by complaining that their time frame was simply too long.

Yet, closely working with Torricelli, Richards subsequently tolerated the feds' minimum eight-year delay in releasing any kind of proposed cleanup plan to Maywoodians. He also said nothing of Torricelli's decision to stop advocating the release of any kind of cleanup proposal to his (Torricelli's) constituents during the controversial lawmaker's remaining 10 years in office.

Additionally, Richards and Democratic Councilman Dr. Tim Eustace were well aware of the results of a state Department of Health and Senior Services federally-funded cancer incidence survey (showing an elevated level of brain cancer cases involving women living near the toxic site) about two years before the then-Republican Whitman administration decided on releasing the survey to the public.

Eustace - serving in his first council term - presented the initial ifndings to Richards about two years before Democratic gubernatorial candidate (and current governor) James McGreevey attacked then-Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whutman for delaying releasing this study to the general public. State officials performed the survey for the feds' Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Richards was chairman of the borough's failed Environmental Legislative Action Committee during this time


Before then-Rep. Robert Torricelli negotiated the "DOE-Stepan agreement" with Stepan Chemical 20 years ago: The polluter - and not the taxpayers - was solely responsible for preparing one cleanup plan addressing the removal of thorium and chemical contamination underneath all sites in Maywood, Lodi and Rochelle Park. This was how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would have enforced the Superfund law - as the sole oversight agency- to this day.

Once the "DOE-Stepan agreement" was completed (as supported by Richards): The federal government, at that time, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) , and now the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, assumed sole financial responsibility for all remaining radiological cleanup costs. Stepan retained liability for all chemical contamination - except under the Maywood Interim Storage Site - a piece of land Stepan donated to the DOE through Torricelli's dealings/ Torricelli's actions brought an extra layer of government bureaucracy into the mix and ended EPA's thorium enforcement efforts. Subsequently, the DOE and corps have pretty much dictated to the community the terms of their operation. For instance, both were involved in hiding the details of a proposed thorium-only partial cleanup plan from Maywood residents for a minimum of eight years. Yet the DOE, in correspondence to Maywood's then-Congressional representative, Republican Marge Roukema, conceded as early as 1981 that Stepan predecesor Maywood Chemical Works never used thorium under a federal government contract.

For more concerning Richards' statement that Rothman might particpate in a meeting involving the council and the corps, see, "Councilman: Charge feds host fees for thorium site." For more on Lautenberg's role in Maywood's thorium controversy, please read, "Lautenberg never backed full thorium cleanup."

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