Covered with storage tanks, smoke stacks, and holding pools, the old Chambers Works manufacturing site in southern New Jersey is an eyesore. From the bridge crossing the Delaware River, the industrial zone looks like a burnt patch, a brown splotch in the otherwise green of the river’s eastern shore. But the real problem with Chambers Works isn’t as visible.
Since 1892, when DuPont chose this site to house its smokeless gunpowder operations, Chambers Works has been ground zero for some of the world’s most environmentally devastating commercial enterprises. Now mostly abandoned, the roughly 2-square-mile area could serve as a museum of disastrous chemistry. Leaded gasoline; cancer-causing dyes; Kevlar, a synthetic fiber found to cause cancer in rats; Freon, a refrigerant that ate a hole in the ozone layer; neoprene, the production of which gives off a carcinogenic gas; refined uranium for atomic weapons; and PFOA, which now pollutes drinking water around the plant — and around the planet — are among the 1,200 chemical products DuPont made and stored at what was its largest manufacturing complex.
Martin Cleary remembers the strange smells that used to waft throughout his work site and the wastewater flowing through ditches that ran through the plant on the way out to the river. “It was yellow or sometimes brown,” said Cleary, who worked at Chambers Works for more than 37 years and spent much of that time inspecting the inside of chemical tanks. Even though he developed bladder cancer, which his doctor told him resulted from the work, Cleary has mostly kind words for the company that employed him and many of his friends.
“Anytime I had to get a checkup for my treatments, they allowed me the time off for that, so I appreciated that,” said Cleary, who worked after his diagnosis and throughout two recurrences of the cancer. He used to schedule his chemotherapy appointments for Thursdays so he could recuperate over the weekend and feel well enough to work on Mondays. Now 81 and retired, Cleary is also grateful that DuPont paid his medical bills, though he’s somewhat resentful that the company did so only after he took it to court. And Cleary feels indebted to his former employer for supplying him with a filter to keep the PFOA that leached from the plant out of his drinking water, despite the fact that he and others in the area have had to cover the costs of maintaining and replacing those filters.
But some of his neighbors in the town of Carneys Point, where Chambers Works is located, aren’t quite as forgiving of DuPont and its spinoff, Chemours, which assumed ownership of the site in 2015. The township sued DuPont in 2016 and then refiled the suit against both companies in 2017, claiming that they hadn’t provided enough money to cover the cost of remediating the massively contaminated property. And in May, Carneys Point filed another suit over the site, this one against the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, claiming that the state agency left the town’s residents out of discussions with DuPont and Chemours about how much money they needed to provide to clean up Chambers Works.
“Our concern is they’re crunching the numbers without us and giving DuPont a sweetheart deal,” said Albert Telsey, the attorney representing Carneys Point, who described the Chambers Works site as an environmental disaster “worse than the Exxon Valdez,” the tanker that spilled more than 10 million gallons of crude oil in waters off Alaska.
Though DuPont and Chemours have removed some of the contamination in recent decades, the analysis concluded that, at the current rate, it would take another 1,600 years to fully clean up Chambers Works. Even if every possible effort were made, completely ridding the site of the pollution left by DuPont and Chemours would take a minimum of 300 years, according to Andrilenas, who described that as “the rosy picture.” Having evaluated more than 3,000 industrial sites around the world in his 36-year career, Andrilenas called Chambers Works “one of the most contaminated sites I’ve ever seen.”
New Jersey law requires owners or operators of industrial properties to clean them up or give the state’s Department of Environmental Protection the money necessary to do so before they sell the sites or merge with another company. Yet that didn’t happen when DuPont transferred ownership of the site to its spinoff company, Chemours, and then went on to merge with Dow.
New Jersey law also allows people affected by contaminated industrial sites to have a say in planning their remediation if polluters don’t clean them up in a competent and timely way. The people of Carneys Point have made the case that DuPont, which faced a penalty from the state in 2011 for 220 chemical spills of hazardous waste, falls into this category. Yet the town has been not been included in the negotiations between DuPont, Chemours, and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, according to the May suit.
Documents referred to in the suit and reviewed by The Intercept show that representatives of Chemours put forward a plan in December 2017 to spend $54 million on cleaning up the site, less than 5 percent of what Carneys Point says is necessary. And while the town wants the contamination entirely removed, one of the plans mentioned in emails between the DEP and Chemours would leave some 100 million pounds of hazardous waste on the site, according to Andrilenas.
Lawyers for the town initially asked the New Jersey DEP to be included in planning for the site in 2016. But DEP ignored that request, as well as a petition signed by more than 1,000 residents of Carneys Point that demands they be allowed to participate in decision-making, according to their suit.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection referred questions about the Carneys Point cleanup and the two suits filed by the township’s residents to the New Jersey Attorney General’s office, which declined to comment.
DowDuPont provided a written statement in response to inquiries about Carneys Point from The Intercept, though the company declined to respond to specific questions about the litigation:
DuPont and now Chemours have been actively remediating the Chambers Works site for decades under agreements reached with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the United States EPA. We are committed to continuing to meet our environmental obligations at this site.
We believe the suit filed in December 2016 is without merit. The lawsuit is about technical definitions of ownership and asset transfer. Carneys Point’s characterizations regarding the nature and status of the ongoing remediation at the site are incorrect. In particular, Carneys Point’s claim that remediation at the site will cost $1.2 billion is inaccurate and based on a flawed analysis. The remediation work begun by DuPont is being continued by Chemours.
Chemours also provided a written statement that addressed the site in general but failed to address specific questions about allegations made by Carneys Point:
The Chambers Works plant includes several landfills and the site soils and groundwater have been impacted by historic operations. Chemours has been working with environmental agencies, the NJ Department of Environmental Protection and US EPA, to ensure the site does not present a risk to public health or the environment.
Chemours has taken steps to remediate the site, including a pump and treat system for groundwater, closing basins and ditches, and installing a sheet pile wall to assure the site groundwater is contained. We continue to investigate additional technologies that might accelerate further remediation.
DuPont chose this South Jersey spot for its smokeless gunpowder plant in 1892 in part because of the river, which provided easy shipping access. The water also provided protection for the company’s headquarters, which were just across the river in Wilmington, Delaware. Company officials were concerned about the possibility of the plant exploding, according to “DuPont Dynasty: Behind the Nylon Curtain,” a comprehensive history of the corporate empire. The fear proved to be well-founded. The South Jersey factory was the site of several deadly blasts, including at least two that occurred in the first eight years at the site. Massive explosions at the plant continued at regular intervals throughout the next century.
Yet gunpowder was just the first of many dangerous products to be made at Chambers Works and its neighboring facility known as Deepwater. By World War I, the DuPont site was also producing aniline dyes, which had already been shown in Europe to cause cancer. The first cancers in the New Jersey dye workers started appearing in 1932. The company continued making one of the carcinogenic components until 1955, though it had been aware of excess bladder cancers in its workers for decades, according to the occupational health scholar David Michaels.
In the early 1920s, DuPont began making leaded gasoline at its plant by the Delaware River. The manufacturing process not only distributed lead throughout the soil — where much of it remains today — but also poisoned many of its workers. The five-story brick building on the site became known as the House of Butterflies, named for the DuPont workers who seemed to be plucking nonexistent insects out of the air, but were actually hallucinating due to the effects of inhaling the neurotoxin.
According to a 1925 New York Times investigation, “About 80 percent of all who worked in ‘The House of the Butterflies,’ or who went into it to make repairs, were poisoned, some repeatedly.” Frank W. Durr, the first documented lead casualty at the plant, died in 1923 in a straightjacket at age 37. Durr, who was known as “Happy,” was 12 when he began working for DuPont. To compensate Happy’s wife for his death, the company gave her a pension of $17 a week for four years. The editor of the local paper, which didn’t cover Durr’s death at the time, told the Times that he couldn’t get any information about the case because “they suppress things at the lead plant.”
During the 1940s, Chambers Works was also a Manhattan Project site, which left a legacy of both radiation and fluorine on the site of DuPont’s operations. There are many more contaminants left in the ground at Chambers Works. Testing showed 75 chemicals above New Jersey’s standards in ground water at the boundary of the site. The carcinogen benzene, for instance, was measured at 28,000 times the allowable level. In 1999, the state granted DuPont a 999-year exemption from the usual limits on these chemicals. Many more contaminants exceed safety levels within the site, according to Andrilenas.
At times, DuPont has framed some of the negative consequences of its work as inevitable. After lead poisoning drew attention to its southern New Jersey plant, a 1936 annual report described the lead casualties among its workforce as the “slow and gradual toll which humanity has always paid, and perhaps must pay, for the conquest of new and dangerous ground.”
Carneys Point certainly benefited from some of the new and dangerous ground the company has covered. “The plant was phenomenal for the township,” Joe Racite, former mayor of Carneys Point, said recently. Racite, 65, knows many people who were employed by the plant, including his late father-in-law, a dye worker who died from cancer at 56. And he still remembers the explosion at the plant that broke the windows of his high school classroom during one of his final exams in 1969. Still, in its heyday the plant seemed almost worth the health and environmental problems it caused.
Now, Racite isn’t so sure. Earlier this year, DowDuPont moved one of the last of its businesses — the production of a synthetic fiber used in aerospace and military applications known as Aramid — to India. Chemours recently put the industrial site up for sale. And, while the hubbub that used to surround the plant has gone along with most of the jobs, the pollution remains — and will likely burden Carneys Point for generations to come.