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CARTERET, N.J. â We slip slided, a zoologist, two environmentalists and I, across ice, snow and mud toward a wire fence with a sign: Environmental Investigation Cleanup.
Beyond this fence, a 125-acre expanse of yellow swamp reeds, vines and cottonwood trees extends north to the Rahway River. Decades ago, American Cyanamid ruined this wetlands expanse, once home to rich oyster beds, with cyanide-contaminated sludge, the chemical detritus of the past century.
Years ago, it was partially cleaned and covered with a few feet of topsoil. With the passing of the seasons, nature has commenced its repair work.
But the Christie administration has another idea for this land. It appears poised to let a company, Soil Safe, truck in millions of tons of petroleum-contaminated soils and dump it on this site, which lies directly west of Staten Island and the Arthur Kill.
When Soil Safe is finished, a mound 29 feet high would cover most of this acreage.
The scientific staff at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection examined this proposal, and a number of members came away appalled. They said a flood could erode the Rahway River bank and cause the mound to collapse into the water.
Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times
In a 2010 email, an agency scientist noted that this project was ânot sustainableâ and that âdeveloper/business profit driven motivationâ fueled it.
In 2013, another agency expert offered that the proposal was âtechnically questionable.â Yet another scientist noted that if a flood washed through, the soil mound could collapse and âpose a threat to the environment or to the public health.â
Yes, well, whatever.
The Environmental Protection Department issued a highly unusual conditional approval in May even before it received the engineering studies. âIâve never seen that move before,â said Debbie Mans, the executive director of the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper, who walked the land with me.
The political moves, by contrast, are classics of the New Jersey genre.
The county political boss here is a Democrat, State Senator Bob Smith. He holds two day jobs: He is chairman of the Senate environment committee, and he oversees a politically connected private law practice. He represented Soil Safe at a hearing before an elected county board, which he more or less dominates through careful oiling of well-financed political action committees.
Then there is Paul Weiner, one of the three owners of this contaminated plot of swampland. He is the law partner of State Senator Ray Lesniak, a Democrat, who more or less runs politics in neighboring Union County. Soil Safe now pays the owners of this land $ 75,000 a month in rent; if the deal goes through, it promises the owners many millions of dollars in tipping fees.
There are two more players in this drama. Soil Safe, through careful piling up of campaign contributions, has acquired a political godfather in the State Senate president, Stephen M. Sweeney. Soil Safe operates in Gloucester County, Mr. Sweeneyâs home base, and pumps millions in tipping fees into county coffers. Its top officials have contributed $ 30,000 to Mr. Sweeney.
Mr. Sweeney, a Democrat who dreams of one day running for governor, has proved a useful dance partner for Gov. Chris Christie. He has shepherded the Republican governorâs more controversial proposals through the State Legislature; Mr. Christie, in turn, has let judgeships, the control of an authority or two, and maybe the odd landfill contract slip to Mr. Sweeney and his allies.
All these names and dollar figures can make the head swim. Itâs easiest to conceive of politics in New Jersey as a grand old pie. If politicians behave, there are enough slices to go around.
Larry Hagna, a Department of Environmental Protection spokesman, said that the agencyâs staff is no longer worried. The staffâs old emails â some written as recently as eight months ago â are yesterdayâs news, he said. âWe recently had said to the staff: âYouâve raised concerns. Does anyone remain in opposition?â
âNobody,â he noted, âraised their hands.â
United States Representative Donald Payne Jr., a Democrat, persuaded the Army Corps of Engineers to examine the flood risks. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy submerged this entire marsh in churning ocean waters.
State officials waved off his offer. âWe donât have any more questions,â Mr. Hagna said.
Certainty is difficult to come by on environmental questions. But in the face of so many objections and with so many political godfathers for this project, Mr. Hagnaâs words fail to reassure.
This is not a bucolic land. The New Jersey Turnpike, a mile to the west, offers a constant dull thrum, and white oil tanks rise like monoliths.
Then you climb a pile of dirt and cottonwood roots and vines, and look out over the marsh. Diamondback Terrapin nest here. Yellow-crowned night herons skim the water. Crabs drill homes in the banks. Three deer feed 100 yards away.
Fred Virrazzi, a zoologist and an intense, insistent man dressed in his best âDuck Dynastyâ apparel, advised us to look up. A bald eagle cartwheeled across the sky like an acrobat loosened from a swing.
âA lot of people, they donât even know this river exists,â Mr. Virrazzi says. âThereâs so much beauty waiting to be unlocked.â
Or, as the case may soon be, to be buried in contaminated sludge.
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