Two Problem Articles from Star-Ledger

  1. A Watershed Clash Peaking in Meadows
  2. How Close is Too Close?

The Star-Ledger Archive                 COPYRIGHT  The Star-Ledger 1998

Date: 1998/06/21 Sunday Page: 021 Section: NEW JERSEY Edition:
FINAL Size: 1364 words

A watershed clash peaking in Meadows

By Matthew Futterman Star-Ledger Staff When the early morning sun splashes across the sprawling fields of cattails, the meadows beside the Hackensack River appear as pristine as a golden field of wheat. Looks can be deceiving. This 600-acre expanse of open meadowlands just north of the Continental Airlines Arena, called the Empire Tract, is anything but pristine. It is a dried-up marsh littered with garbage, old tires and an assortment of beer bottles. The high weeds that grow here, called phragmites, look pretty when they bend in the breeze, but they choke the marshland dry and push out plants necessary to support other wildlife. According to a Virginia developer, the land is the perfect spot for the biggest mall New Jersey has ever seen - a 2.1-million-square-foot retail , entertainment, hotel and office complex that would make the Mall at Short Hills appear downright quaint. But environmentalists say the land is part of a vital haven for migratory birds, as well as priceless open space in a region packed with pavement. Early this fall, the federal government will issue its report on the environmental impact of the megamall proposed by the Mills Corp. of Arlington, Va. With its results not even in yet, local environmentalists already are gearing up for a battle that they say could determine the future of the Meadowlands and set a precedent for a national urban wetlands policy. ''This is a controversial proposal," said Joseph Seebode, chief of the regulatory division for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New York region , who will ultimately determine whether the Mills Corp. gets its building permit. Seebode said he knows the weed-infested marsh is mostly dry and has become something of a wasteland. "But the land does have some value as a wetland, and we have to determine what that value is," he added. Environmentalists would like to see the Mills Corp. move its project to a nearby city begging for development, such as Newark or Jersey City. But the developers say there is no other site in northern New Jersey with enough access to major roadways and space for every component of its project. The Mills Corp. has offered a compromise. If the developers receive permission to build the mall on 206 acres in the Meadowlands in Carl stadt, they will spend $25 million improving nearly 400 acres of dried-up marshland immediately north of their mall. Still, environmentalists counter, approving the mall means that the Meadowlands are once again open for development. ''Building another megamall in one of the last remaining areas of open space in that area is just about the stupidest thing we can do," said Joan Ehrenfeld, an ecology professor at Rutgers University and an expert on urban wetlands. "When is enough enough?" The Mills Corp. has built seven regional shopping centers, such as Ontario Mills near Los Angeles, Sawgrass Mills near Fort Lauderdale and Potomac Mills outside Washington D.C. The Meadowlands Mills proposal includes plans to build 15 to 20 major stores and outlet centers, 200 specialty stores, a dozen restaurants, a 25-screen multiplex, a hotel, and two office towers. The megamall would produce 2,500 construction jobs, 9,000 part-time and full-time jobs once the mall opens, and more than $3 million in property taxes every year for Carl stadt. Two hundred years ago, the Meadowlands were an unbroken 25,000-acre marsh and cedar swamp. Now, what is left is a meandering 8,500-acre mixture of landfills, restored wetlands, and contaminated creeks. Cleanup efforts in the Meadowlands during the last 30 years have brought fish and other wildlife back to some areas of this rambling swamp once riddled with pollution. But the Carlstadt meadows have been slowly deteriorating as a wildlife habitat for most of the century. In the 1920s, engineers trying to control mosquito breeding built dikes along the Hackensack River to prevent tidewater from flowing into the meadows. Without water flushing new life into the marsh, the land quickly dried up, and the invasive cattails flourished. During the last 50 years, the weeds have become a haven for illegal dumpers. Old window frames, car parts and empty bottles of laundry detergent are nestled in the weeds that offer little food for the few red-breasted robins and red-winged blackbirds that fly overhead. The Mills Corp. proposal to improve a portion of the area would knock down the dikes, destroy the phragmites and allow saltwater to flow into the strip of land closest to the Hackensack River. Environmental engineers hired by the Mills Corp. to design the project say their marsh will resemble the wildlife sanctuary on the eastern bank of the river in North Bergen. There, snowy egrets and blue-winged teals feed in the muddy marsh, as 18-wheelers rumble by on the Turnpike. Developers resurrected this marsh in the early 1980s after striking a deal similar to the one the Mills Corp. is seeking. The environmental engineers also plan to create a freshwater marsh beside the saltwater marsh, using an elaborate pump system that will circulate water through the ground. ''We want to make this 380 acres of a functional wetland with more than 100 species," said Joseph Shisler, a biologist who has been hired by Mills to assess the impact of the mall on the ecosystem. While there is little debate that the Carlstadt meadows are in dire need of improvement, environmentalists say allowing the massive mall is too high a price to pay, especially because resurrecting wetlands is still an experimental science. Scientists have proved that they can grow marshland grass and attract bird life. But attempts to get man-made wetlands to produce microorganisms that support life at the bottom of the food chain have been less successful. ''We still haven't quite measured how these systems really behave," said Paul Mankiewicz, a biologist and the director of the Gaia Institute in Brooklyn, which studies urban wetlands. Also, environmentalists say, wetlands work best when they are large and contiguous, and chopping up the Carlstadt meadows will not bring wildlife back to the area. ''You don't gain function in a wetland by shrinking it," said Andy Willner, director of the New York-New Jersey Baykeeper, an environmental group that opposes Mills' plan, along with 14 other groups, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Audubon Society. Willner and other environmentalists have their own plan for the Carl stadt meadows, if they only had the millions of dollars it would cost to do it. They want to remove the berms along the Hackensack River and allow water to flow through the entire meadow, then dredge the land to create new channels. Water could then flow in and out with the tides, replenishing all the land with new life. ''It may take 30 or 50 years, but let's let the river decide where the restoration is going to happen," said Bill Sheehan, an environmentalist who runs ecology tours along the Hackensack River. Even in its degraded state, the land in the Carlstadt meadows is worth between $3 and $6 million, according to the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, a state regulatory commission that has recently bought several hundred acres in the Meadowlands to preserve. Restoration work could then cost tens of millions more, including construction of a new wall that would prevent flooding in the houses and businesses along the northern and western borders of the Carlstadt meadows. But public money for such a project is scarce, and some environmental scientists believe the Mills Corporation may be the last and best hope for at least part of the meadows in Carlstadt. ''I'd love it if someone would write a check out of the goodness of their heart to buy the land and then preserve and improve it," said Ken Scarletelli, a wildlife biologist with the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission. "So far I haven't heard that proposed yet, and I'm not holding my breath." PHOTO CAPTION: Environmentalists Andy Willner, left, and Bill Sheehan view the Saw Mill Creek Wildlife Management Area in North Arlington. CREDIT: 1. PHOTO BY NOAH ADDIS GRAPHIC FOR GRAPHIC, "PRICELESS HAVEN FOR WILDLIFE," SEE MICROFILM PAGE 021. Etc. BOX: "This is a controversial proposal." - JOSEPH SEEBODE, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The Star-Ledger Archive                 COPYRIGHT  The Star-Ledger 1998

Date: 1998/05/03 Sunday Page: 001 Section: PERSPECTIVE Edition:
FINAL Size: 2258 words

How close is too close?

The tanks that contain liquefied natural gas were placed far from population centers for a reason - but now development is bring people ever nearer

By John McLaughlin PHOTO CAPTION: Aerial of the storage tanks in the Meadowlands, East Rutherford. CREDIT: PHOTOS BY TOM KITTS GRAPHIC FOR MAP For four years developers, environmentalists, regulators, politicians, and business and labor have been at each other's throats over a 586-acre swatch of the Jersey Meadowlands. They've argued jobs and preservation, development and open spaces, traffic and clean air, birds and bonds, funding streams and fishing streams. And in the process, they've ignored what, under other circumstances, might be the most contentious issue of all: The looming presence of twin storage tanks on an adjoining piece of land, each containing 12.4 million gallons of liquefied natural gas (LNG ), one of the more combustible and highly regulated fuels in the country . These gleaming white tanks, owned and operated by Transcontinental Pipeline, (Transco) rise 140 feet above the tall brown reeds of the Carlstadt meadows a mile and half east of Giants Stadium and the rest of the 750-acre Sports Complex. The Mills Corp. of Virginia, the nation's biggest builder of shopping malls, wants to construct New Jersey's biggest retail complex on an adjoining tract whose boundary is roughly a football field and half away. And no one seemed to know - or up until a few days ago, to have cared- whether the tanks and the mall - Meadowlands Mills - can safely coexist. When Bob Ceberio, the deputy executive director of the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, was first asked three weeks ago whether the tanks constituted a safety threat to the proposed mega-mall, he said, in effect, "no problem." The parameters of the safety zones surrounding these tanks are set by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Ceberio said, at three- quarters of a mile. He added that this proposed Bergen County site for a billion-dollar mall, hotel and office building development is at least that far away from the fuel tanks. He was mistaken. The mall site, known locally as the Empire Tract, isn't three-quarters of a mile away from the tanks. It's only a quarter-mile from the tanks to the Empire Tract boundary. And the tanks are just a little over a half -mile from the heart of the planned mall. The closest parking lots and restaurants are to be built a less than half a mile away. The hotel would be six-tenths of a mile from the tanks. At least what's what a U. S. Geological Survey map says. And, it isn't FERC that establishes the safe-zone limits. The U.S. Department of Transportation's (USDOT) Office of Pipeline Safety does that. William Vincent, a spokesman for the USDOT, said his agency is normally satisfied with a buffer zone of between a quarter-mile and a half- mile. But, he said, there is no way to make a judgment on the Meadowlands tanks without an on-site study. Chris Stockton Transco spokesman in Houston, says the tanks, the only ones Transco operates, have two specially designed steel walls separated by three feet of insulation. They are surrounded by dikes deep enough to hold the contents of the tanks should they spring a major leak. They are well maintained, he said; they meet all regulatory require-ments, and so far as Transco is concerned, they make good neighbors. But Joseph Seebode, chief of the Regulatory Branch for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the tanks has perhaps gotten short shrift and the issue should be revisited. Without the Corps' assessment that the project is environmentally sound, it cannot be built. Seebode added: "The issue of the tanks has been discussed but it hasn't drawn any significant mention. And no one raised it as a safety issue. Notwithstanding that, I don't think we followed through with all the coordination that needs to be done. Safety is a major public issue. I am going to be sure our consultants are made aware of this. And that they reach out to Mills and Transco and probably the Department of Transportation to make sure the safety issues are properly addressed." "This issue will be addressed in the environmental impact statement," Seebode promised. Anthony Scardino, the HMDC executive director, said: "I don't know that an examination of this issue is required, but now that it has been raised we'll take a look at it." Mike Turner, a spokesman for the Mills Corp., said," We will be in full compliance with the law. We are not putting a billion dollars into a project without dotting every "i' and crossing every "t.'" Turner said Mills had yet to submit all its data to the Corps of Engineers and was not sure whether the tanks figured into its reviews. This official concern about the tanks amounts to a significant change of direction. It appears that no one had any plans to seriously assess the potential impact of the tanks on safety until your faithful correspondent began making inquiries. Now the Corps of Engineers will make it a formal part of the permit process. There never has been a dangerous incident at the Transco site in Carlstadt, although residents there and in nearby towns got a scare four years ago when there was what Transco said was an ethyl mercaptan leak. This chemical compound is harmless but has a vile smell. It is mixed with LNG so that a leak can be quickly detected. Six years ago, opponents of a housing development proposed for the Empire site raised the issue of the tanks but it was concerns expressed by Carlstadt officials over the size of the development that killed that project. Like the reeds that dominate the swamps, the tanks are an accepted part of the landscape - so much so that six years after the second Transco tank was constructed, the town of Secaucus put up a building a half-mile away that houses the district's high school and middle school. A total of 670 students are enrolled there. Ceberio undoubtedly reflects the common perception when he says: "I live two and a half miles away from those tanks. I've been there for 25 years and I never give them a thought." The Corps of Engineers' review of the environmental impact statement will be based on information supplied by the developers. The State Department of Environmental Protection will review clean water and flood issues. Ceberio and Scardino said that final approval could come within a year. The Empire Tract is on the fast track for development by because the HMDC is enthusiastic about the project and untroubled by the LNG tanks. It wasn't always so. Shortly after HMDC was created in 1970 and given the power to regulate land use in the Meadowlands, it denied a permit for the second tank, arguing, among other things, that it posed a hazard. Transco appealed and a federal court in Newark ruled that this was an interstate commerce issue and that a state agency had no right to interfer e with Transco operations. But Scardino and Cerberio say they can't speak to the concerns of their predecessors of nearly 30 years ago and that they believe the tanks are safe. The twin tanks are tied into the vast Transco pipeline network and are designed to supply fuel during peak-demand periods. Pumped up to the Meadows from the Gulf of Mexico, the natural gas is liquefied by submitting it to temperature of 260 degrees below freezing. It is restored to is gaseous form when it comes time to pump it out to PSE&G, GPU Energy, Con Ed and other northeastern power companies. Gas tanks rarely explode, but they have gone up in the past. In 1944, a pair of LNG tanks exploded in Cleveland. The resultant holocaust killed 130 people and leveled virtually everything within a square mile. In 1984, 500 people died in Mexico City when above-ground liquid petroleum tanks blew up. Closer to home, gas trapped behind a liner in an out-of- service Staten Island LNG tank in 1973 touched off an explosion that killed 40 workers who were repairing the liner. The installation was never rebuilt. And public pressure forced the cancellation of plans to build a LNG tank farm on the Port of New York docks. Today, no LNG tankers use the port and just one shipload of liquid petroleum gas passes through each year. It does so under rigid Coast Guard regulation and supervision. Burton Davidson is a professor of chemical engineering at Rutgers University whose course in safety is a requirement for anyone who wants a degree in that discipline. The main danger from a LNG tank leak, Dr. Davidson explained, is the formation of a vapor cloud that could drift from the Transco site to a populated area like the mall and explode in a ball of fire once it came in contact with an "ignition agent." If the Mills Corp. follows its site plan parking lots and restaurants will be built within 2,000 feet of the tanks. Professor Davidson says close proximity to the mall parking lots could pose a threat because of the potential of a fire for reaching gas tanks. "They should build those parking lots as far away from the LNG tanks as possible," Davidson said. He also said the project shouldn't go forward without public hearings on safety concerns and detailed studies on how wind patterns, air inversion and terrain might come into play were there a major tank rupture. "Safety is a relative thing and I really could not make a judgment without looking at an environmental impact statement and other studies but even the perception of danger is enough to create an aura of fear and anxiety," Davidson said. Richard Magee, a chemical engineer and chairman of the waste management department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, said, "Any time you have a large quantity of fuel, there's a danger of fire. But I don't see a major hazard so long as the setback is sufficient. "If a quarter-mile is deemed adequate, and it probably is, I would still like to know what the scientific basis for the judgment is." A third expert, Dr. Elizabeth Drake, said, "What you are really protecting against is a low-probability accident but one with high- impact consequences." Drake is associate director of the Energy Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She added: "It doesn't sound like the greatest idea in the world to build a shopping center there. " It seems clear enough that Transco, when it built the two tanks, chose the Carlstadt Meadows specifically because of the remoteness of the site . And it took care to make sure it stayed remote. The site covers 370 acres and sits just off Exit 18W of the Turnpike close to the service road sports fans use on their way to Giants Stadium. It has been 25 years since the Staten Island accident. Fears fade with time and the odds are that not one in a thousand drivers who pass the Transco tanks in Carlstadt know what they contain or would worry much about it if he or she did know. But 20 years ago, there was a sharp shortage of natural gas and the expectation was that many new tanks would have to be built to hold LNG imported from Algeria. The General Accounting Office was sufficiently worried about safety to issue a detailed report declaring that storage tank s were a real danger and shouldn't be built in populated areas. The agency predicted that "during their lifetime many will experience natural forces (winds, floods, earthquakes) greater than standards require them to withstand." But the gas industry points to a long record of accident-free storage-tank operations, beginning in 1964 when memories of the Cleveland catastrophe dimmed and Americans began to use gas heat once again. "We have been regulated since 1968 and those regulations are constantly updated and we comply with every one," said Terry Boss , a spokesman for the International Gas Association of America, the industry trade group. Environmentalists say the Mills project could and should be built somewhere else. At nearly 600 acres, the Empire Tract is the largest contiguous protected parcel in the 21,000-acre Meadowlands district, which means it's big enough to support its own eco-system. That's important to people like Andrew Willner, baykeeper of the New York- New Jersey Harbor. He argues the mall should be built on dry land - in the Newark- Kearny meadows or on a landfill in Jersey City. But Meadowlands Mills is promising 2,500 construction jobs and another 17,000 full-time and part-time jobs once the mall is up and running, plus $15 million a year in sales tax revenues for the state and $3 million in local property taxes. And, as part of the deal, Mills would be obligated to partially restore and maintain 380 acres of marshlands that would adjoin the 206-acre mall site. Willner and his partner in opposition to the mall, Bill Sheehan, the Hackensack River keeper, say the mall acreage should be returned to wetlands and allowed to revert to its natural, swampy state. That way, they say, it would do what comes naturally, which is to act as a filter, a protection against floods and a breeding ground for shellfish and wildlife . The Mills environmental experts say that if the berms and dikes that serve to keep the land dry were removed, adjacent developed areas would flood with dismaying regularity. As for the proximity of the Transco tanks to a site where thousands of people would work, shop and play every day, Willner says; "These (the tanks) are definitely dangerous things. That's why they are where they are."