Paulsboro deserves better

Shirley Johnston is among Paulsboro residents participating in a proposed class-action suit against Solvay Specialty Polymers. "We've been poisoned!" she said.
Shirley Johnston is among Paulsboro residents participating in a proposed class-action suit against Solvay Specialty Polymers. "We've been poisoned!" she said. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 21, 2014

At Don's Barber Shop in Paulsboro, "we know the water in this town is contaminated," owner Donald Wilson says. "But we don't know enough."

After environmentalists began blowing the whistle last year and borough officials alerted residents in January about an industrial perfluorinated compound (PFC) in a municipal well, Wilson and customer Ian Holmes stopped drinking tap water.

So did retired carpenter Benny Sebastiani, 82, and a couple of other regulars at the D&D Cake Shop & Sandwich Shop on Broad Street, where I relished an excellent $5 hoagie while getting an earful about the blue-collar borough and its struggles.

"I love this town. It's always been a hardworking, rough-and-tumble town. But it's changing. A lot of people are out of work," aerospace worker John Chew, 52, said from his home in the Billingsport section.

"And I wouldn't drink the water if you paid me."

Welcome to Paulsboro, where just over 6,000 people - 29 percent of whom live below the federal poverty line - live on less than two square miles at the confluence of the Mantua Creek and the Delaware River.

"I love my house and my street and my neighbors," said Sue Meade, 68, a retired customer service supervisor who moved to Paulsboro 15 years ago. "But lately, there's been nothing but stress here."

The borough is still making headlines in the aftermath of the November 2012 derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals across a vintage Mantua Creek bridge.

The disaster forced evacuations and left behind a so-called death zone of contamination and lawsuits by some affected residents.

Meanwhile, no major tenant has been announced as construction continues on the long-awaited, $200 million Paulsboro port project. The Dollar General store at the faded Paulsboro Plaza is pulling up stakes for nearby Gibbstown.

Particulates reportedly emanating from the former Valero, now Paulsboro, refinery (across the border in Greenwich Township), occasionally spatter houses and cars in the borough. Two other municipal wells were shut temporarily due to radium contamination.

Even the community's pride and joy, the superb Paulsboro High School wrestling team, recently was drawn into controversy.

The racially integrated squad was the target of what many observers (me included) saw as a racially charged "joke" photo posted online by members of archrival Phillipsburg High's wrestling squad. The team members were censured by their school but will not face criminal charges.

And late last week, the only good thing to come out of the contamination problem - free bottled water - was abruptly interrupted after Weiss TruValue on Broad Street decided to no longer serve as the distribution site. Giving out 400 to 500 cases a week was interfering with regular business, manager Phil Weiss said.

"We have not suspended what we're doing, but right now, we have no distributor," said David Klucsik, a spokesman for Solvay Specialty Polymers, the West Deptford firm that was paying for the water at the borough's request.

Until early 2010, Solvay used the PFC called perfluorononanoic acid in its manufacturing process.

When I asked Klucsik about health concerns related to the contaminant, he cited a statement from the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection that it was "not aware of any studies that have directly linked consumption of water with PFNA with human health effects."

Apparently, neither Solvay nor the borough thought it necessary to advise the public of the disruption in water distribution on the eve of a holiday weekend. The Paulsboro Action Committee's Facebook page made the development public, a testament to the value of an enlightened, and riled up, grassroots organization.

But the message from Shirley Johnston and other residents participating in a suit seeking class-action status against the company was unequivocal.

"We've been poisoned!" Johnston, 61, said as she sat at a table in her modest Greenwich Avenue home late last week. "What about all the kids who live around here?"

Unlike Johnston, the borough, state, Solvay, and pretty much everyone in authority seems to be tiptoeing around the question of potential health effects.

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network advocacy group, which exposed the contamination, assails what it characterizes as a lack of urgency.

"Not only Paulsboro, but other communities around Solvay Polymers are experiencing a water crisis," deputy director Tracy Carluccio said, noting that PFCs have shown up in Woodbury, East Greenwich, Greenwich, and West Deptford.

"There needs to be an extraordinary effort to ensure that these compounds are identified and cleaned up," Carluccio said.

"We know these contaminants shouldn't be in people's drinking water," said Paulsboro's special counsel, Bradley M. Campbell, a former commissioner of the N.J. Department of Environment Protection. "We also know that Solvay has to be the one to clean them up."

Sounds fair to me. The people of Paulsboro deserve better than they've been getting. And not only from their faucets.


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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