Kiddie Kollege, a day-care center that opened inside a heavily contaminated building in Gloucester County with a fresh coat of paint and little else, is about to be razed, nearly four years after state inspectors discovered the contamination.
Workers in protective jumpsuits and masks have been preparing for the demolition, which is expected to start early next month, now that legal hurdles have been cleared. State, county, and local officials welcome the removal of the building, which has stood as a constant reminder of an embarrassing and troubling saga.
"Our concern for the welfare of these children will be ever-present, but at least we can get the site itself cleaned up and ensure it won't cause any more harm," State Sen. Fred Madden (D., Gloucester) said in a statement. "I don't want any more lives put at risk."
As many as 100 babies and children were exposed to toxic mercury vapors in the former Accutherm thermometer factory, a one-story concrete building in Franklinville, after it opened as a day care in January 2004. When the state Department of Environmental Protection ordered it shut in July 2006, 60 children who were tested had mercury in their bodies.
Mercury can cause damage to the central nervous system.
Over time, the mercury levels in the children dropped, but DEP reports revealed the building had harbored vapors 27 times acceptable limits.
Ed Putnam, an assistant director with the DEP site remediation program, said the boarded-up building would be knocked down with a backhoe and about 700 tons of debris would be taken to a toxin disposal facility in Indiana. Workers are deconstructing the interior, Putnam said.
Fog spraying will keep down the dust, and the air will be monitored to protect neighbors from mercury vapors.
The process, which is expected take more than 30 working days, will cost roughly $600,000 and is being handled by Atlantic Response Inc. of East Brunswick. New Jersey will pay for it and decide later whether to sue to recoup the money from the bankrupt factory owner and/or the former owner of the day-care building, Putnam said.
"We put them on notice to pay for it," Putnam said, noting that neither party agreed to assume responsibility.
Diane Lilley, who lives behind the building, said she was happy to see the building go.
"Thank God," she said last week, as a half-dozen workers were at the site. "It's been a long time coming. I want it over and done with, and cleaned up the way it should have been done long ago."
Lilley, a longtime resident, had warned Julie Lawlor, one of the day-care operators, about mercury spills in the old factory and said that the building was never properly cleaned up. But Lawlor, who had rented the facility, said in a 2006 interview that she had dismissed Lilley's remarks as a rumor. She said her landlord, real estate broker Jim Sullivan III, had assured her the place was cleared for occupancy.
Lawlor is now a fugitive on unrelated embezzlement charges and was last seen in Ireland.
Sullivan testified in a court hearing earlier this year that he had misinterpreted documents that said the building was contaminated and said he believed it posed no health threat. He and family members acquired it in a tax foreclosure.
A year ago, Sullivan had blocked demolition by the DEP when he denied access. After lengthy litigation, the DEP a few months ago won approval to proceed.
A class-action lawsuit filed by parents and the day-care employees accuses Sullivan, the DEP, Franklin Township, the factory owner, and others of negligence. It is awaiting trial.