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When company towns lose their company

One community is suing DuPont, another is fighting to hold on to the taxes the chemical giant pays, and the third is just struggling to get by in rural Salem County

A former church across the street from the police station in Penns Grove.
A former church across the street from the police station in Penns Grove.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

Buildings that haven't felt a heartbeat in decades dot the streets of Penns Grove, boarded up, draped in torn tarps, and locked in chains, sagging and leaning like tombstones for sale in a cemetery no one visits.

Native son Bruce Willis abandoned a $50 million plan to redevelop the South Jersey borough's scenic Delaware River waterfront in 1997 when he lost interest. Things were bad back then in Penns Grove. They're still bad. On a recent summer morning, the only souls by the river were seagulls that flew off into the fog over a pier when a dented old Jeep choked up Main Street.

The pier looked as if a sea monster had stepped on it out of spite.

Neighboring Pennsville and Carneys Point Township, which encircles Penns Grove borough, also struggle with what they lost and what was left behind once the leviathan downsized, when three "company towns" in the shadow of the Delaware Memorial Bridge were left with a sliver of the company that defined them.

Penns Grove "is here because of DuPont," said barber Joseph Cherry, whose shop on Main Street has a strict "No Profanity" policy. "In my opinion, when they left town, it killed this town. Those days are gone, and they're not coming back."

A bulwark in rural Salem County for more than a century, DuPont was a trove of 25,000 jobs during World War I. It began making gunpowder there and eventually tallied up more than 1,200 chemicals that most people used, but couldn't pronounce, on the 1,445-acre site. Teflon and Freon were invented there.

DuPont's workforce in the county dropped over the decades, and in 2015, the chemical giant spun off the remnants of its Chambers Works plant to Chemours, a chemical corporation that manufactures things like "fluoroproducts" and "performance lubricants." Chemours employs 400, with support from 200 to 300 contractors. DuPont is now a tenant at the Chambers Works site, with about 120 employees making products used in the manufacture of bulletproof Kevlar, and heat- and chemical-resistant Nomex and Kalrez.

A Rutgers report still lists DuPont as the second-biggest employer in the county, behind PSE&G, but the days when the company's workforce numbered in the thousands truly are gone.

"It was a great place and now it's a nothing, which is why DuPont unloaded it," said lawyer Al Telsey, who grew up in nearby Salem City.

Telsey is leading Carneys Point in a $1 billion lawsuit against DuPont, a legal action he and elected officials believe is critical to the future health, fiscal and physical, of the township of 8,049. Many of the chemicals DuPont made over the decades, the lawsuit claims, leached into the drinking water of wells. The damage amount, Telsey said, is based on calculated costs of cleaning up 107 million pounds of hazardous waste in the soil and groundwater.

According to the lawsuit, New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection estimated it would take 1,000 years to get rid of the pollutants, but an agency spokesman said NJDEP never made any predictions on a remediation timeline.

Telsey speaks softly, but his words for DuPont are sharp.

"This community is one of the poorest in New Jersey," he said. "We relied on that industry, and that industry is gone. We can't renew our economic vitality on a billion-dollar, contaminated piece of crap."

DuPont spokesman Dan Turner, in an emailed statement,  told the Inquirer and Daily News the suit was without merit. "This dispute is about technical definitions of ownership and asset transfer," he wrote. "We are confident that the remediation work begun by DuPont will be continued by Chemours."

Last week, DuPont combined with Dow Chemical Co. to form Dow DuPont. The merger will complicate the lawsuit, Telsey said, and make it "more difficult for Carneys Point … to get to corporate money created by corporate reconfiguration."

DuPont has long been the biggest tax ratable for adjacent Pennsville. Most of the Chambers Works property sits within it. Now DuPont wants its tax assessment lowered, and Pennsville Mayor Robert McDade worries that could place an even bigger burden on residents, impelling them to pack up and leave.

"I'm trapped between how much money do you spend fighting things, or do you just drive everyone out," McDade, a DuPont retiree, said. "We are just trying to come up with a [property] value that is true."

Penns Grove, once home to many DuPont employees and executives who lived in stately riverfront Victorians, isn't suing anyone. The borough never collected taxes from DuPont. It needs something close to an economic miracle, or a newly interested Bruce Willis.

Real estate signs with "American Dream" are pegged to massive old buildings sprouting trees. Willis Hardware, with its homey wooden floors and tall ceilings, is empty. A hotel a few blocks up Main Street sits frozen like a bug in amber, door locked and lobby full of dead plants.

There are homes for sale in Penns Grove, along the riverfront, that are cheaper than some used cars. Joe Cherry said many residents still can't afford them. Unemployment is a staggering 9 percent, more than twice the state's rate. The poverty rate is triple that of Jersey, according to a Rutgers report. The median household income is $31,406 — almost 50 percent less than the average for Salem County.

"DuPont could take you from high school to middle class, just like that," he said. "Those jobs aren't around anymore."

According to the real estate website Trulia, just under 750 homes are for sale in the three communities. Carneys Point has the highest median asking price at $129,900. In Penns Grove, it's $64,900. The statewide median right now is $316,000.

At American Dream Realty in Carneys Point, an officer manager said no one there was allowed to talk about the housing market. Other local real estate offices didn't return requests for comment.

Finding a former DuPont employee to talk is much easier. On a summer afternoon, one of the two men seated at Stubini's South, a Carneys Point bar that warns customers not to bring in knives, worked for DuPont. The customer in Joe Cherry's barber chair recently retired. Bruce Willis worked at DuPont. His family did, too.

"The first big layoff I remember was in the early 1980s," said Trish Bowers, manager of Pennsville Hardware and ex-wife of a DuPont worker. "There have been quite a few big ones since then, and each one has affected the community."

DuPont's own historical timeline plants a flag in Carneys Point in 1892, and notes that by 1917, during the height of World War I, it employed a mind-boggling 25,000 people there. DuPont's Chambers Works plant was built on land known as Skunk's Misery in 1914 and eventually employed 6,500.

Pennsville's population rose by nearly 40 percent from 1910 to 1920, but that's nothing: Carneys Point saw a 741 percent jump during the same decade.

"That was people coming into the region for DuPont," said Andrew Coldren of the Salem County Historical Society. "Those numbers remained huge well into the '50s and '60s. It's hard to describe how important it was to Salem County. It employed not just a lot of people, but whole generations."

DuPont built the YMCA in Carneys Point, a nine-hole golf club, and many of the houses in those towns, big and small. It opened playgrounds and swimming beaches, hosted picnics and celebrations.

Headlines from these Salem County communities over the last century also talked about repeated fatal explosions, leaks, and fines. In 1898, a Penns Grove man was "blown to pieces" in an accident. A year later, the Inquirer reported that 300 workers left their jobs after men were killed while filling a torpedo. "One arm was found twenty feet away," the paper wrote.

Most people have anecdotes about explosions, stories about swimming in colorful "ponds" on the property that are equally funny and scary to them now. DuPont built a liquid waste treatment plant on its land in the 1970s and made a business out of it by treating other facilities' waste.

"I was doing final exams when one plant blew in 1969, and it blew every window out of the high school," said Carneys Point Mayor Joseph Racite, a Penns Grove High graduate.

People who never worked for DuPont have strong opinions about it, and cynical outlooks for all the communities.

John Lieggi, 51, owns an auto body shop in Carneys Point. He sat in a chair covered in electrical tape, a baseball by his feet, taking a break from the brake lines of a Ford pickup to ponder what might make things better.

"I don't know, maybe take a bulldozer and just push everything on Main Street into the river," he said, pulling a cigar out of a desk drawer. "I'm sorry you had to come here. It's depressing."

At Pfeffer's Pizza in Carneys Point, owner Gus Fessaras, 66, diced up cheesesteaks on his grill. Last year, he chased off a would-be robber with a baseball bat. Next year, he probably won't be there. He's retiring. No one's taking over.

"You know someone?" he said and laughed.

He didn't notice that a woman who'd been scratching off lottery tickets at a table was now waiting at his counter. She had a winner, but didn't look happy about it.

Fessaras was busy sliding between the grill and the deep fryer.

"There has to be some kind of miracle here," he said.