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TOMS RIVER, NJ (AP) - In hindsight, it's clear something went terribly wrong in this Jersey shore suburb, where many people worked or lived near a chemical company that dumped toxic waste into waterways and buried it.
The men came from the paint and resin factory, and their sweat was the color of the paint they worked with.
The children swam in the local river and came up to breathe in the milky white foam that floated on the surface of the water. There seemed to be less fish than might be expected; Some of those who were there seemed transparent and others had injuries.
And children were being diagnosed with cancer more often than usual.
It wasn't until many years later that the truth came out: Ciba-Geigy Chemical Corp., the city's largest employer, dumped chemicals into the Toms River and the Atlantic and buried 47,000 barrels of toxic waste in the ground. This created a cloud of contaminated water that spread beyond the site into residential areas. It made the area one of the most notorious Superfund sites in the United States and joins the list of the most contaminated areas in need of federally supervised cleanup.
The state health department found that 87 children in Toms River, then known as Dover Township, were diagnosed with cancer between 1979 and 1995. One study found that rates of childhood cancer and leukemia in Toms River "were significantly elevated compared with state rates."
The company, which was indicted, has paid millions of dollars in fines and penalties on top of the $300 million it and its successors have paid so far to clean up the 506-acre site, a never-ending ongoing effort at View.
Now, New Jersey has reached an agreement with the site's current owner, BASF Corp., to repair damage to the site's natural resources. And residents of Toms River, where "cancer pool" is part of the local lexicon and bottled water is the only drink, are not happy with the deal, describing it as woefully inadequate.
The agreement has not yet been finalized by the Secretary of State for the Environment.
The agreement commits BASF, which owns the site as the corporate successor to Ciba-Geigy, to restore wetlands and grasslands; Create walking paths, walkways, and a raised viewing platform; and build an environmental education center. In addition to this work, which has yet to be costed by the state or the company, BASF will pay the state $100,000 and will continue to operate a number of solar panels on a portion of the site.
Mayor Maurice Hill said Toms River is best known for two things: winning the Little League World Series in 1998 and creating the Ciba-Geigy Superfund website, which many residents blame for the city's high incidence of childhood cancer.
He called the saga "an open wound for Toms River and a great pain for the community."
The mayor and others say the settlement isn't doing enough to compensate Toms River and its residents for decades of pollution and disease they've suffered.
Hill complained that the deal was negotiated without local input, wants 250 acres (101 hectares) of land that BASF could develop turned over to council and says it should be an emergency fund to deal with future undetected pollution. .
At a public meeting on the proposal, organized by a local environmental group Wednesday night, one resident after another spoke about the pain of losing loved ones or friends, and not knowing the water they were swimming and drinking in could make them sick. .
"I have a friend who has five children, and four of the five have cancer," said Gloria Baier, whose father recently died of cancer. “I swam in this water. There was this whitish mud floating on the water. Sometimes you would stick your head out there.
"I remember looking down and saying, 'Why does this fish look transparent to me?
"You could see fish with wounds," added Jeff Fackenthal. "You could see it wasn't right."
Summer Bardier's uncle worked at the factory.
"I'd come home in the summer and sweat the color of the paint I was working on," he said. "He was polluted and he polluted his children."
Michael Matthews lost his best friend to a rare childhood cancer at the age of 12. Another friend died of the same disease.
DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette said the agreement was not intended to penalize anyone and stressed that BASF remains committed to fully completing the site's remediation under the supervision of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency.
In 1992, Ciba-Geigy paid $63.8 million to settle lawsuits alleging illegal disposal of hazardous waste and, along with two other companies, secured a $13.2 million settlement involving 69 families whose children had cancer.
BASF took over the site in 2010, two decades after the factory ceased operations, and says it did nothing to contaminate the site.
The proposed rule currently aims to restore natural resources that belong to all New Jersey residents to a state where those resources can be reused, LaTourette said.
"That's what this is about," he said. "It's not the same as the duty to clean the place."
He said people instinctively want to put a dollar value on things, so the merits of this arrangement seem hard to fathom.
"BASF's primary goal is to restore the site to meet regulatory standards that protect human health and the environment," said Molly Birman, a company spokeswoman. "We look forward to implementing the restoration projects and opening up new opportunities to encourage local recreation, learning and community involvement."
But many local residents said they would not go near the site even after the cleanup work was completed. A man who attended a public hearing on the deal Wednesday said he wouldn't even drive by with his car window down.
"This could be a great park one day," added environmental activist Janet Tauro. "Maybe in 100 years?"
Diane Salkie, an EPA project manager who has overseen the remediation since 2011, said a plume of contaminated groundwater is 40% smaller than it originally was, but still lingers below some residential areas.
BASF pumps nearly a million gallons of soil every day, treats it to remove contaminants, and returns it to the ground. Approximately 341,000 cubic yards (261,000 cubic meters) of soil was excavated and treated at the site, enough to fill 136,400 truck beds.
Salkie said that in 1996 it was estimated that the cleanup would take 30 years and end in 2026. Last week he said: "I don't think we'll get there. It's very difficult to set a timetable.
Christine Girtain, a science teacher at one of Toms River's high schools and current New Jersey State Teacher of the Year, said the environmental education center should present the full story of the Ciba-Geigy intentional contamination of the site and honor the victims.
"You need to know the names of the people who died from this contamination," he said. "We have lost many children because of Ciba."
BASF is "open to incorporating the environmental history of the site into the educational facility," Birman said.
Photo: A gate at the entrance to the former Ciba Geigy chemical plant in Toms River, N.J., warns of the contaminated area, which was included on Superfund's list of the most toxic sites in the country, on Tuesday, January 24, 2023. Residents of Toms River, where childhood cancer rates were high from the late 1970s to the 1990s, widely question a proposed deal to restore natural resources damaged by the company's liquidation as insufficient. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)
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