New Jersey Superfund site now an open-air classroom

TOMS RIVER, N.J. (AP) — Can Toms River’s most notorious Superfund site become an open-air classroom to teach students about the environment?

That’s the hope of the former Ciba-Geigy property’s current owners, BASF, who believe the 1,350-acre property is the perfect place for students to learn about the site’s decades-long industrial history, as well as the dozens of wildlife species that today call the property home.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Stephen K. Havlik, senior remediation manager at chemical giant BASF, which purchased the property off Route 37 from Ciba Specialty Chemicals in 2009. “We’re looking to find opportunities to partner with school groups as well as other environmental groups.”

Manchester Township High School was the first to partner with German-based BASF, in 2016. For the past two years, advanced placement environmental science students have been conducting a deer population survey on the property.

Using motion-triggered wildlife cameras placed throughout the site by BASF, the students are working on a deer population survey, trying to determine how many deer roam the property.

“I love this class,” said junior Elisabeth Hudak, 16. “It’s not just sitting in a classroom. By using all of this data, we are trying to calculate the number of deer.”

Junior Payton Kohan, 17, said she found the project very interesting.

“We learned so much about the environment,” Kohan said. “We’re also helping. We’re trying to figure out the number of deer, but also the different types of wildlife on the property.”

Manchester High School Vice Principal Stacie Ferrara said the idea to do a project on the BASF property came from high school environmental science teacher William Schmidt, who drives by the Route 37 land every day on his way to and from school.

During his travels, Schmidt wondered why he so frequently spotted dead deer next to the highway. He wondered how many deer were on the old Ciba property.

He came up with an idea: Why not conduct a deer population survey on the Superfund site?

After first contacting state environmental officials, Manchester was put in touch with Laura McMahon, an environmental scientist at BASF, and the high school deer population project was born.

BASF allowed access to the site and purchased 10 motion-sensitive cameras that have been installed on various parts of the property. The cameras have produced more than 20,000 images of wildlife roaming through land where industrial dyes and resins were produced for more than 40 years.

When the students visit the site, they remove memory cards from the cameras that they download later to view the images. They also make sure the cameras’ batteries are working.

“They log them in, they estimate the population, after determining how to do it and the best way to do it,” Ferrara said. “They document the behaviors, and what’s going on. We caught a fight on camera once.”

The site visits, Ferrara said, “have led to some really good conversations in class.” The students also log time and temperature, and note other wildlife they’ve observed there.

“We saw a lot of coyotes,” said junior Samantha Walton, 16.

The students also learned the history of the site, from economic engine for Ocean County to notorious environmental polluter, to the cleanup that’s happened there.

Though many in Ocean County envision the property as a giant industrial wasteland, only about 300 acres were ever used for the chemical company’s operations, which included dye and plastic manufacturing.

Havlik noted that more than 650 acres on the site have never been touched. Almost all the buildings on the property have now been torn down, and the land is home to various types of wildlife.

McMahon said motion-sensitive cameras have picked up images of coyotes, red and gray foxes, turkeys and raccoons, in addition to dozens of deer and various species of birds.

Some of the images are dramatic: deer prancing through the snow; a red fox trotting down a trail; two bucks sparring, their antlers locked in battle.

“It’s given the kids an opportunity to get out into the field,” McMahon said. “They are responsible for a research project. They are trying to determine how many male deer there are, how many females, and how many fawns.”

On a sultry day in late May, students rode a school bus out to check one of the cameras, located down a dirt trail surrounded by tall trees. Before disembarking from the bus, the students donned bright yellow safety vests and plastic safety glasses.

At the camera site, they removed the camera from the tree and took out the memory card, before checking the battery and replacing the camera in its stand.

Havlik said BASF hopes to partner with other school districts, including Toms River, in the future.

The company has also installed 28 bluebird boxes on the site, to lure insect-eating Eastern Bluebirds, and have planted 24 acres on the property to attract grassland species including the threatened grasshopper sparrow, a small songbird.

The next planned project is a pollinator garden, to attract bees and butterflies, according to Dave Johnson, site and community relations manager for BASF.

“These are the types of things we want to try to do at Toms River,” Johnson said.

BASF officials know that to some longtime Toms River residents, the thought of an environmental education program thriving at the former Ciba site might be a bit disconcerting.

Many people in Toms River remember the site’s long history of environmental contamination, which started almost as soon as the plant — then called the Toms River Chemical Co. — opened to much fanfare in 1952.

For many years, the Toms River plant, which was eventually renamed Ciba-Geigy, was Ocean County’s largest employer. More than 2,000 people worked on the site, making dyes and resins, and funneling money into the economy of a mostly rural area.

The plant had its own Boy Scout troop and fire department, and Ciba officials were prominent members of the community and philanthropic leaders. But almost as soon as the plant began manufacturing dyes, chemical wastes were being dumped in several sites on the land.

Dye wastes turned the Toms River different colors. Later, a controversial oceanfront pipeline carried Ciba’s waste into the Atlantic, off Ortley Beach.

In 1982, the Ciba-Geigy property was placed on the federal Superfund list of toxic waste sites after an investigation by the EPA found leaking drums of waste and high levels of cancer-causing chemicals on the land.

Thousands of drums filled with toxic waste, including some cancer-causing chemicals, had been dumped in an unlined landfill, and several other locations, on the property.

In 1992, two former Ciba executives and the corporation pleaded guilty to illegally dumping pollutants into two landfills on the company’s property, and agreed to pay fines. All industrial operations on the site ceased in December 1996, the same year a groundwater treatment operation began there.

More than 47,000 drums of waste were removed from the property in 2003 and 2004 and sent off-site for disposal. By August 2010, treatment of more than 400,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil had also been completed.

Ciba spent more than $300 million to treat groundwater and clean up toxic waste on its property, and spent millions more to settle three lawsuits related to toxic waste on its land and the polluted groundwater that it caused.

A 1999 state and federal study determined that some Toms River residents had been exposed to chemical pollutants from the site that had leached into private wells and the public drinking water system decades ago.

The same study determined that the site no longer posed an environmental threat because polluted wells have been sealed and groundwater treatment is in place. About 200 homes are located north of the property, and another 250 to the south. The West Dover Elementary School is adjacent to the site.

Groundwater cleanup at the site is likely to continue for at least 20 to 30 more years.

Each day, about a million gallons of polluted groundwater is pumped from the aquifer beneath the site, treated to remove contaminants, and dumped onto recharge areas near the Toms River.

Havlik said 20 years of pumping up and then treating groundwater has reduced the footprint of the underground pollution plume by about 40 percent.

Now, BASF officials hope the site can be used to teach people its industrial history as well as the story of the cleanup there.

They hope other school and community groups will be interested in visiting the site, and perhaps a birding group might want to manage the bluebird boxes, and keep track of the number of bluebirds now living on the land.

“When they come here, we have a good story to tell for the past 10 to 15 years,” Johnson said.




Information from: Asbury Park (N.J.) Press,