U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials stood in front of a verdant baseball diamond Monday morning in Camden. The field used to be a landfill where folks from across the city dumped their trash, including chemicals and medical waste.
"As I look out behind me, I remember what it once was," U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D., N.J) said.
But Norcross joined EPA officials not to tout a mission accomplished, but instead to focus on an area behind the ball field and playground, a part of the former landfill site that is not yet ready for development.
The officials and Norcross announced that the Camden Redevelopment Agency would receive a package of grants totaling nearly $1 million to help in the cleanup of the site at Harrison Avenue and East State Street, as well as three other contaminated sites across the city.
"I'd like to invite you back in about two years," said James Harveson, director of economic development for the Camden Redevelopment Agency.
By then, he said, his agency hopes cleanup at the site will have created a waterfront park, as well as a field of solar panels to power the Ray and Joan Kroc Salvation Army Corps Community Center next door.
The Harrison Avenue landfill - part of which was cleaned up before construction of the Kroc Center and surrounding open space - will receive $200,000 from the grant, according to EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck.
"It shouldn't matter what zip code you're born into. You [should] have a good education and a place to play," Norcross said.
Another $200,000 will be used on the APM site - a former warehouse, experimental lab, and toy assembly plant at East State and River Avenue that is contaminated with arsenic, metals and hydrocarbons, according to the EPA.
Yet another $200,000 will go to a former Radio Corp. of America building at 100 Cooper St. once used for manufacturing of radios and now contaminated with volatile organic compounds, EPA officials said.
In a separate grant also announced by Norcross and the EPA, the agency set aside almost $350,000 for assessing environmental contamination at the former Camden Laboratories at 1667 Davis St.
"I can't wait to get started on that one," Harveson said.
The grants will cover only a fraction of the costs at each site, officials said, with the Harrison Avenue landfill cleanup and waterfront park construction looking to cost as much as $20 million - which could require help of additional state grants - and the RCA building cleanup needing $2.5 million, according to Harveson.
The Camden Redevelopment Agency said it now has 17 active EPA grants, including six other cleanup grants.
"New Jersey, unfortunately, has a toxic legacy unlike any [state] in the nation," Enck said, citing the state's 114 federal Superfund sites, locations deemed to have the most hazardous level of contamination, far worse than the four sites that received funds Monday.
Enck, Norcross, and other officials visited one of those Superfund sites - Pennsauken's Puchack Well Field site - before the grant announcement.
None of the six city-operated supply wells there has been in operation since the mid-1980s, after it was determined that the public water system that served most of Camden was contaminated by poisonous chemicals and heavy metals, which can cause cancer and other health problems.
The EPA took the lead on the issue in 1998, taking the reins from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection due to the complexity of the project.
The EPA is still investigating and cleaning the chromium-contaminated water in the wells, which are drilled into South Jersey's Potomac-Raritan-Magothy Aquifer. Next, the EPA, working with the Army Corps of Engineers, will investigate the source, and work to decontaminate it.
At the Puchack site at Cove and River Roads, EPA officials said they hope cleanup will be completed in three years, calling it a normal time frame for a groundwater remedy effort of this scale.
When the cleanup is over, Enck said, the site could again supply drinking water, or zoning could determine that it be used for another purpose.
Camden received from 15 million to 16 million gallons of water a day from the well when it was operating at capacity in the 1970s.