He’s changed his approach from a role as a legislator to a man involved in business, but the goal is similar in that he’s still making changes he believes will help people in his community. Behind the scenes, he has used his influence to help save hospitals and support others who have made a positive impact.
Perhaps his most notable achievement has been overseeing one of the largest environmental cleanups in the United States – the Jersey City former Honeywell site -- at a time when other so-called “superfund” sites are not getting the federal funding.
Although he lives in western New Jersey, Torricelli’s work over the last decade has the potential to create a whole new Gold Coast.
In May 2003, U.S. District Judge Dennis Cavanaugh -- an old friend whom Torricelli had helped become a judge -- put Torricelli in charge of the massive cleanup effort. Cavanaugh had ruled that a contaminated site located on the eastern bank of the Hackensack River near Route 440 presented an "imminent and substantial" danger to the public health. This ruling came as a result of lawsuit filed in 1995 by the Interfaith Community Organization and other citizens living near the 34-acre site.
“Judge Cavanaugh’s ruling changed the landscape,” Torricelli said last week.
“We had to move more material than was excavated from the World Trade Center after Sept. 11.” – Robert Torricelli
The site was originally owned by Mutual Chemical Company and later taken over by the Honeywell Corporation. Mutual took over the site just after World War II when the Morris Canal (now Route 440) ran through the area. The site is near Society Hill on Route 440 and across from the Home Depot about one mile north of the Bayonne border. Mutual acquired the site to dispose of chromate ore residue left over from their other manufacturing.
Over the years, more than one million tons of the contaminant was dumped there in piles 20 feet high, almost one third of which was considered highly toxic. When operations ceased in 1954, Mutual sold the property, which was then converted into a drive-in movie theater.
Later, commercial buildings were constructed on the site, many of which had to be torn down because the contaminants caused walls to buckle and parking lots to crumble.
Someday, the site will be home to a massive mixed-use development.
Managing a logistical challenge
Although Torricelli had overseen a cleanup of a contaminated site in Bergen County before, the Jersey City project was different, and required management skills to deal not just with the site itself, but the logistics of removing the contaminated soil.
“I have good management skills,” he said during an interview at the Coach House Diner in North Bergen last week. “But there was a steep learning curve. Something like this had never been done before.”
The Honeywell cleanup along Route 440 posed a number of serious challenges, located not just along an environmentally sensitive Hackensack River estuary, but also along a well-traveled highway.
Residential properties were located to the south and east of the site, which meant the cleanup would have to have minimum impact on the neighborhood.
Torricelli praised Honeywell and Judge Cavanaugh, saying that the proposed cleanup was not simply going to cap the site, as some other contaminated sites have done. “That would have limited the use of the property,” he said.
Because of the high health risk and the fact that the land cannot be redeveloped until the contamination is removed, the court ordered Honeywell and others to pay for the project, and for Torricelli to make certain the land is cleaned up.
When developers create a cap instead of comprehensive cleanup, they are restricted from putting down deep foundations necessary for a large development.
To conduct a comprehensive cleanup, though, Honeywell must remove all the contamination – and that has meant hundreds of trucks traveling along the busy Route 440 corridor.
“We had to move more material than was excavated from the World Trade Center after Sept. 11,” he said. “But first we had to find someone to take [the refuse].”
Eventually a site in Iowa was found.
“So this meant trucking the soil to a rail head and then putting it on trains,” Torricelli said. “And we accomplished this without significant impact on that area.”
A permanent solution
The project required them to remove all the contaminated soil and then refill it with clean soil. It also meant groundwater treatment.
Torricelli said with the Hackensack River along one side of the site, it was important to make sure that the nearby property remained uncontaminated. The project not only required new soil, but steel containment walls inserted around the perimeters to keep it from being contaminated from the water.
Most of the work, he said, was new and innovative; incorporating technology that he hoped would become standard for other sites elsewhere in the country.
Torricelli said that the suit brought by Interfaith Community Organization (ICO) -- a community group that formed in 1986 to address building affordable housing in Jersey City -- was the right thing to do. The ICO is made up of at least 35 churches in Hudson County. Dissatisfied with pace of that these sites were being cleaned up, the ICO decided to take legal action.
That led to the group filing the lawsuit in 1995 against companies who were responsible for the dumping of chromium on the 34-acre site.
Estimates said that the land near the Hackensack River had been contaminated with at least a million tons of chromium, the result of dumping by the Mutual Chemical Company between 1895 and 1954. Later, the Roosevelt Drive-In and the Valley Fair shopping center occupied the property, but the chromium was not cleaned up.
“The ICO did what the government should have done,” Torricelli said. But he also credited Honeywell.
“Although they were litigants when this started, once the judge made the decision to require Honeywell to clean the property up, they went about it seriously and with the intent of doing it right.”
Honeywell, a Morris Township-based manufacturer of aerospace products and other technologies, originally planned to clean up the site by covering it with a permanent cap and build a high-tech wall between the contaminated site and the river, rather than excavation. Capping covers waste to keep contaminants from spreading by water or wind. The cap is usually comprised of concrete or asphalt. But excavation or removal of contaminated material from a toxic waste site is considered more effective.
Although the cleanup took longer than expected, the site, Torricelli said, is currently waiting for approval from state and federal environmental authorities that will allow Honeywell and the City of Jersey City to move ahead with a joint project that may help Honeywell recover some of the nearly half billion dollars the cleanup cost.
What’s to come
The property is located in Jersey City’s 1,344-acre Bayside Development Zone. The zone received approval from the City Council in 2008 and is slated to offer more than 8,100 residential units and nearly 1 million square feet of office space on 95 acres someday.
The size of the project hinges on the extension of the Hudson Bergen Light Rail from its current terminus at West Side Avenue to Route 440. While the state authorized refunding of its Transportation Trust Fund earlier this year – which includes funding for the light rail -- Torricelli said federal funding is also needed.
Under the current political climate, this could be a challenge, although other public officials in Hudson County and the state believe the extension will take place, even if other plans for the light rail are more doubtful.
“That extension has to happen,” Torricelli said. “This project will create a whole new Gold Coast in Jersey City, and it will spur development in other towns like Bayonne.”
Just south of this project is the Bayonne border, and there are a number of sites that could benefit by the development of the Honeywell property.
Bayonne’s western shore would also become the southern tip of this new Gold Coast, he said. “This is a good thing for everybody,” he said.
Although some bids were already taken on the project, the city had conducted a second round of bidding for potential developers.
“As soon as the property gets a letter of approval that it’s clean, development can start,” he said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.