Camden’s toxic dirt pile will be cleaned in 2023

Weeds cover a pile of toxic dirt contained behind corrugated fencing at the intersection of 7th and Chestnut streets in Camden, N.J. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Weeds cover a pile of toxic dirt contained behind corrugated fencing at the intersection of 7th and Chestnut streets in Camden, N.J. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

If he could, Camden County Commissioner Jeff Nash would dump the long-standing toxic dirt pile in Camden’s Bergen Square neighborhood “in the front yards of the principals of the company who created this mess.”

“I’m passionate about this issue,” Nash said. “If you would observe this gigantic mound of contaminated soil that was illegally dumped in a residential neighborhood, you would be as outraged as I am, as are the neighbors.”

A memo of understanding announced Friday does not allow Nash to fulfill his wish. But it does open a path for the site to finally get cleaned up beginning in the first part of 2023.

The memo is between the City of Camden, Camden Redevelopment Agency, Camden County, and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. It will allow the city and county to move forward “with an aggressive remediation and clean-up plan.”

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Several contiguous properties along two city blocks are covered by the memo; between 6th and 7th streets from Mount Vernon to Sycamore streets. Money has already been set aside to clean up the 70,000-ton mess; $5 million of American Rescue Plan, or ARP, money the city received. In addition, $2 million from a $200 million state aid package to the city is also being committed.

“It’s huge,” said Camden Mayor Vic Carstarphen. “It just puts us in a position…for me [to] even be using my ARP funds to just go ahead and just really take care of this environmentally hazardous situation.”

Nash said it was fortunate that the city has ARP funds to address what many have referred to as an example of environmental racism, adding they aren’t able to compel responsible parties to remove the dirt.

“These are costs that the city simply does not have, nor does the county,” he said. “To have this new resource available to remove this terrible eyesore is very fortuitous.”

Legal action was taken by the state last year against the current owners of the property, Weyhill Realty Holdings, to address the nuisance. It also amended their lawsuit to include the previous owners, S. Yaffa and Sons, Inc., and the company’s owner William Yocco.

Nash credited Carstarphen for bringing all of the officials to the site to see what residents in the neighborhood had to live with for quite some time.

“Seeing it is almost as if you have an epiphany,” he said. “That’s what may be considered the last straw. But it was actually the eye opener for everyone involved.”

The mayor said he made a promise to the community to address the mess.

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Weeds cover a pile of toxic dirt contained behind corrugated fencing at the intersection of 7th and Chestnut streets in Camden, N.J. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“I had a town hall meeting a year ago and I told them, ‘we’re going to be all hands on deck while I’m here,’” he said, adding that he also told community members that “this is not going to go on another year or two or three years.”

Officials said that legal action would continue regardless of plans to remedy the site.

If Weyhill does not take any action, the Camden Redevelopment Agency will access the site and eventually clean up the property. The Camden City Council has authorized foreclosure proceedings against the property sites.

Roy Jones, an environmental justice advocate and executive director of the National Institute of Healthy Human Spaces, said he has “mixed reviews” about the memo.

Jones said that the situation overall “is dragging too long.”

“To have that pile continue to sit there until 2023 is another insult to the neighbors in that neighborhood,” he said, adding that people will not believe that the pile will be removed because of how long the process is taking.

He also wants to know what is being done to address his concern about the health of residents in the area. Jones also questioned Camden County’s commitment to cleaning up the site, noting the money that the city and the state are committing to the cleanup.

Camden Mayor Victor Carstarphen speaks from a podium in Camden
Camden Mayor Victor Carstarphen speaks in front of the mound of dirt and construction debris that looms over the intersection on 7th and Chestnut streets. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“The county to date has not committed one dime to that cleanup partnership,” he said. “So, they’re not a true partner at all.”

The county is providing logistical support and the health department has examined the dirt for which particular toxins are in it, according to county spokesman Dan Keashen.

Lead and mercury had been found in the dirt pile, which is at least two stories high. Also on the property, a 500-gallon underground fuel storage tank that the state alleges has not been properly closed by owners.

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