Toxic NJ: The Cost of Contamination

By Brenda Flanagan

This is part one of a three-part series delving into the issue of oil and gasoline contamination from leaking underground storage tanks and the impact on homeowners and the environment. Watch part two and part three.

“It was something out of a fantasy dream. A nightmare, almost, but it was really happening.”

Eliot Zigmund’s lived with a fuel oil tank nightmare for six long years. His yard on Larch Avenue in suburban Teaneck is pocked with test wells that monitor contaminants that are still flowing in groundwater beneath his property. This despite clean-up costs now pushing $600,000. The oil leaked from an old fuel tank once buried in his side yard.

“We wanted the tank out of the ground. My oil service company told me it was a ticking time bomb. Even before they got the tank out of the ground, they smelled and saw oil. They saw holes in the tank. It was bad,” Zigmund said.

And it got much worse. After the contractors winched the tank up out of the ground in July 2009, they tested the soil and discovered serious contamination — a toxic plume of volatile organics that flowed beneath his neighbor’s home, as well.

“The first couple of years of this, this was really my house, my property. Their property was a construction zone,” he said. When asked how his neighbor’s reacted, he said, “Not well. They didn’t take it well.”

“I was so angry,” said Ines Solomon, “and there was nothing I could do about it.”

Solomon is Zigmund’s neighbor and says she watched in frustration as workers jacked up Zigmund’s house and excavated 250 tons of tainted soil between their two properties. The remediation was prescribed by Triassic Technology, which was hired by his insurance company. They replaced it with clean fill. The result?

“There’s still oil,” he said.

That’s why monitoring wells still pepper both his property and the Solomon’s. They’re connected by specially heated conduits to a shed in Zigmund’s backyard. The conduits lead to a filter that removes any residual oil residue seeping from the water table into the monitoring wells.

“This is basically a very sophisticated, big Brita. That’s the way it was explained to me: a big Brita filtration system,” he said.

The costly hookup hasn’t logged two consecutive clean months in more than a year of filtering. Zigmund’s insurer has since hired a different company, Earthworks Environmental, to try a new technique: injecting the ground with hydrogen peroxide. That might cost another $100,000. Meanwhile, Zigmund says, his insurance company figures it’s responsible for 82 percent of the estimated $600,000 bill. With the special state fund that reimburses homeowners for fuel oil tank removal costs basically broke, that would leave Zigmund on the hook for maybe $100,000. His home’s appraised at only $300,000.

“The fact that they’re looking to clean up the state environmentally on the backs of single family homeowners is just patently absurd,” he said. “These are expenses that no single family should be asked to endure.”

Next door, the Solomons feel similarly trapped. Their insurance company’s response?

“Our company will not touch this,” Solomon said. “We’re stuck. We can’t sell our property. We’ve asked if we can sell it. We cannot sell it until this has been resolved.”

And both families want to know why they’re ultimately responsible for what amounts to a toxic cleanup project, with impossibly high environmental standards.

“There’s no supervision from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Never once in this six-year period has a representative of DEP come out here and looked at property or told me that the job’s being done correctly, the job is being done incorrectly, we might’ve done it this way. You know, you’re on your own.”

Zigmund’s contractor, Triassic Technology, called this case an “unfortunate circumstance” because the house sits on “shallow bedrock, where the water table fluctuates between the rock and the soil. That makes it a difficult to clean up. There’s a lot more testing that has to be done, it’s quite a bit more expensive. He faces the same cleanup standards as a chemical factory.”

The DEP said, “You can always find a case that everything just doesn’t work right.”

Assistant Commissioner Mark Peterson revealed that the DEP is now re-examining cleanup standards for underground heating oil tanks.

“Homeowners wanted that, so they had a greater predictability of the environmental professional doing the work, and some environmental professionals wanted that also. So, we’re working on those regulations to revise them,” Peterson said.

“We feel so exhausted and burned out by this whole process. I’m 70 years old. I’ve done all the correct things in life. I’ve brought kids up. I’ve always been an honest person. I’m looking forward to my golden years here, and all I’m doing is wondering whether I’m going to have to abandon my house some day,” Zigmund said.

NJTV News contacted the DEP about Zigmund’s case and a member of the department was there at his home when peroxide treatments began. He’s hoping for success by next summer, but Zigmund’s only one of tens of thousand of New Jersey residents facing what some call a fuel oil tank epidemic.

This story is part of Dirty Little Secrets, a series investigating New Jersey’s toxic legacy. Participating news partners include New Jersey Public Radio/WNYC, WHYY, NJTV, NJ Spotlight, Jersey Shore Hurricane News, WBGO, New Brunswick Today and the Rutgers Department of Journalism and Media Studies. The collaboration is facilitated by The Center for Investigative Reporting, with help from the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State.