By Brenda Flanagan
We got a bird’s-eye view of the former American Minerals industrial site — contaminated with low levels of radium and thorium, a so-called “brownfield” — languishing in the shadow of Camden County’s sewage treatment plant.
Locals often despaired.
“It was unbearable. It really was,” said Camden resident Barbara Pfeiffer.
“This project is for you,” said Camden Mayor Dana Redd.
Today, officials formally unveiled plans to transform this brownfield into a five-acre park — shady green meadows with a natural river shoreline.
“The site where we are currently standing will be the future Phoenix Park,” said Redd. “Just like the phoenix, Camden’s in the midst of its own rebirth.”
“We’re so happy that with this project — the Phoenix Park project. The local community and all of the citizens of Camden County will be able to walk freely to the water,” said James MacFarlane, vice-chair of the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority.
Strolling to the water — not possible now. This site’s only one of about 10,000 brownfields, located in mostly urban areas across New Jersey.
“They are opportunities. They are the lands that we can do storm water projects, open space, development, housing,” said DEP Brownfield Projects Manager Frank McLaughlin.
McLaughlin manages brownfields projects for the DEP and says the rehab pace picked up substantially after a law passed in 2009 authorized the DEP to issue special licenses.
“So we have private partners — licensed — to help investigate cleanup sites so we have a lot of technical support now to transform sites like these into parks,” McLaughlin said.
There’s another brown fields project in Burlington City where a contractor will transform this old knitting mill site into affordable 65 apartments — a very hot commodity. But not every brownfield site lends itself to swift, highly-marketable transformation.
Some require more extensive cleanup, others lack convenient locations. And it always comes down to money.
“We are the state financing authority — essentially, the bank, if you will — that partners with the DEP for environmental infrastructure projects,” said Environmental Infrastructure Trust Executive Director David Zimmer.
Phoenix Park draws on grants and 1 percent loans from a broad coalition of local, state and federal agencies and will improve infrastructure to channel 100 million gallons of rainwater to proper drainage.
So while the creation of this park is — symbolically — a phoenix rising from the ashes of Camden, it also crosses another brownfield off the state’s very long list.