Two weeks ago, North Bergen and local health officials met to discuss 300 tons of phosphorus pentasulfide that were found on the property owned by the New York Susquehanna and Western Railway Corporation at 5800 River Road. Two days later, New Jersey Acting Gov. Richard Codey issued a stern warning about the issue.
"I have directed the Department of Community Affairs, the Department of Environmental Protection and New Jersey State Police to work with appropriate agencies and make sure these chemicals are dealt with properly," Codey said. "The companies that want to develop unregulated sites that endanger our health should hear this message loud and clear: Clean up these sites and obey our laws, or get out of New Jersey."
Five days later, Administrative Law Judge Joseph Fidler was still weaning through the facts of the case to determine whether he had the authority to shut the site down because of the danger it caused to the residents of North Bergen.
Testimony last week Representatives for both the owner of the rail yard and the State Division of Fire Safety gave testimony Wednesday in Trenton in front of Fidler, who had not made his decision by press time Thursday morning.
Also last week, state inspectors cited NYS&W for storing hazardous materials without the required permits and registrations. They ordered the rail line to cease such operations until the proper safety response protocols were in place.
The 80 containers of phosphorus pentasulfide, which is used in the production of high-end lubricants for cars and trucks and is also used in the manufacturing of pesticides, were brought to the site via railroad cars and left in the North Bergen parking lot, awaiting to be shipped to an Exxon plant in Linden by a Carlstadt trucking outfit.
Phosphorus pentasulfide can catch fire or explode upon contact with water. It also gives off toxic fumes. If there was an accident, it would force an evacuation for a radius of five square miles.
Removed A spokesman for the railroad said Wednesday that all of the hazardous materials were off the location.
"I can tell you that all of the chemicals that were of concern are now off the site," said Thomas O'Neil, speaking on behalf of NYS&W. "There are some empty containers on the site, but they will also be removed by no later than a week from Friday."
NYS&W attorneys told state fire officials that they were willing to work together to come to a solution regarding the dispute. However, they maintain that are not subject to any state regulations and will not adhere to fines or penalties if they are administered, because they are cooperating with federal guidelines instead.
"They want to subject us to state permits which would undermine the federal preemption policy," O'Neil said. "You can't run a national distribution system if each state can set up its own barriers and guidelines."
There were some reports that a settlement had been reached, but that was not confirmed by press time Thursday.
"The railroad fully complies with all applicable federal DOT hazardous materials transportation requirements," attorney Dennis Toff wrote in a petition to the state Office of Administrative Law. "Any containers containing product that are not immediately picked up at the railroad's West Side Avenue facility are secured as required by federal law."
Toff's petition also stated that the 80 containers observed earlier by officials were in fact empty and awaiting return to a loading site in Connecticut. The letter read that the containers were "nitrogen-purged" and posed no risk.
Toff's letter also stated said that Bulldog Lines, the Carlstadt trucking firm hired to transport the chemicals, was only delivering the containers to the Exxon plant and does not occupy permanent space at the site.
However, a representative from Bulldog Lines told Hudson Regional Health Commission inspectors last week that Bulldog had been handling the chemicals at that site for three years and three flatbeds with Bulldog emblazoned on the back of the trailer remain sitting on the site.
North Bergen health officials believe that chlorine is inside the trailers, but there is no official documentation available regarding the contents of the trailers.
Both the NYS&W and Bulldog Lines were handed with cease-and-desist orders by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission last week for operating at the site without approvals or permits and in violation of regulations governing the storage of explosive, flammable and toxic materials.
The Meadowlands Commission demanded the immediate removal of flammable materials from the property.
We're doing it right However, NYS&W attorneys feel that the railroad "has proper safety and response protocols in place consistent with applicable federal requirements."
"All of the material being transported through the 5800 West Side Ave. facility are in U.S. DOT approved containers, and by definition, are safely contained and temporarily staged pending pickup," the letters presented in Administrative Law court said. "The chemicals in question do not pose an imminent hazard risk when being transported in accordance with (DOT) requirements."
However, both local and state officials disagreed, after doing research into the chemicals inside the tanks.
There has been one other major change since the chemicals were first spotted last week. In the first two days after the initial disclosure, anyone could have walked up to the containers without being stopped by security.
After state officials visited the site last Friday, the front gate at 5800 West Side Ave. was padlocked and there is a security guard present at all times.