What the #@*% is that smell?
It’s a question that’s asked a lot these days by PATH riders who stop at Journal Square and residents who live in the vicinity of the transit hub on Kennedy Blvd.
“Oh, God, I can’t breathe,” said one PATH passenger who darted off a Journal Square train and practically leapt onto a nearby escalator.
“That s___ stinks,” said Devon Washington, another PATH rider who emerged from a Journal Square-bound train to await a connection PATH train to Newark. “I think it’s coming from over there.” He pointed to a freight train parked on the tracks several yards away from the PATH rails. “I ride through here every night about this time and I smell it a lot.”
“It’s disgusting,” said Cheryl Roberts, another passenger awaiting the train to Newark. “I guess that train’s got garbage on it. But why it got to stop and stay here? Shouldn’t it be moved someplace?”
Across the platform, passengers awaiting the train to 33rd Street were further away from the offending odor. But the greater distance provided no relief.
The source of the problem, according to several city and transit officials interviewed in recent weeks, is a trash transport train owned by Conrail.
“I ride the PATH train all the time now ‘cause my brother uses my car for his job. I’ve never smelled this before,” said Jersey City resident Rob Staley. “This has to be something new. Maybe it’s bad now because it’s summer? I don’t know.” He thought for a moment, then added, “But wait, I rode the trains last year and I don’t remember this smell. It’s disgusting.”
Staley and his friend Chris Brent continue discussing the offending odor as other passengers descend the PATH steps and ask, “Eww, the smell is worse down here. What is that?”
Those who aren’t asking the question out loud probably aren’t doing so because they’re either holding their breath, or busy covering their noses with t-shirts, blouse collars, or any other cloth they have handy.
The situation is no better above ground, where the gross odor can still be smelled for several blocks.
“I live on Magnolia and I can still smell it until I get almost to my block,” said Lydia Hernandez. “If you go to any of the stores around here,” she gestures, indicating the Journal Square area, “you can smell it everywhere.”
Where on earth is it coming from, can anything be done?!
The source of the problem, according to several city and transit officials interviewed in recent weeks, is a trash transport train owned by the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail). The train collects garbage and transports it through the Journal Square area, often parking it overnight at the Journal Square train station.
Although the garbage-filled rail cars are covered with black tarps, perhaps to keep the trash from blowing away, the ill-fitting tarps only partially cover the trash and do nothing to mitigate foul odors.
Problems with these trains flair up periodically and residents have in the past complained to city officials, the county, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the transit agency that runs the PATH system.
But this time residents – and officials – say they are determined to resolve the problem once and for all.
“I was contacted by several residents and we just held a meeting,” said City Councilwoman Nidia Lopez who represents the city’s Ward C, which includes the Journal Square area. “The city’s legal department is dealing with this with Conrail. The issue, I was told, has been going on for years.”
Two weeks ago at a meeting of the city’s Environmental Commission, member Mario Verdibello said he also recently received a complaint from a resident, and a spokesman for the Journal Square Restoration Corporation said the problem has come to the attention of that agency as well.
Two calls seeking comment from Conrail were not returned last week.
Local resident and activist Althea Bernheim has started a citizen-driven campaign to encourage local residents to call the Hudson County Regional Health Commission or the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Residents, she said, should both report the problem and request that DEP inspectors do a site visit in area homes.
In a letter to local residents Bernheim recently wrote, “These trains sit on the Conrail tracks underneath our neighborhood causing a terrible odor for both residents and commuters. In addition, those residents living closest to this problem can't even use their yards the odor is so terrible. This is completely unacceptable… While commuters are also affected by this, it is important that those living at properties affected by the odor call [state and county environmental and health officials] so an inspector has a site to go to and inspect.”
Don’t hold your breath?
Getting freight rail lines, like Conrail, to change how they operate can be a challenge since they are regulated by the federal government and municipal, county, and state authorities have no jurisdiction over them.
But New Jersey’s senior U.S. senator, Frank Lautenberg, sits on the powerful Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in Washington. The committee regulates all interstate common carriers, including railroads.
When contacted last week, Lautenberg’s office refused to comment on the problems at Journal Square.
But Lopez said residents can start locally to begin to address the problem.
“I would encourage people to call the Hudson Regional Health Commission. I’ve worked with them for years and they’ve always been a partner in solving any air pollution control problems…They’ve been very attentive in the past.”
Residents who wish to complain to the Hudson Region Health Commission about odor problems around Journal Square can call Program Coordinator John Demjanick at (201) 223-1133. Hudson County residents can also call the DEP Northern Field Office at (973) 656-4444.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.