For five years, environmentalists and government officials in Bucks County have grappled with a complex question: “Is a handful of jobs really worth a potential toxic waste catastrophe?”
This week, we might get their answer. The decision has important ramifications not just for Bucks County, but the many communities in Central and Southern New Jersey along the Delaware River.
Israel-based Elcon Recycling Services has plans to build a facility in Falls Township, Pennsylvania, that would store and treat 200,000 tons per year of hazardous and residual waste. This includes mercury, lead, cadmium, benzine, vinyl chloride, and 260 other chemicals. Elcon says the facility is safe and “eco-friendly” and has touted the 150 temporary construction jobs and 55 full-time jobs that would be created by the facility.
But nearby residents say the loss of jobs is a small price to pay to ensure the health and safety of the region. Many of them speak from experience and worry that the same towns that woke up covered with red dust from the Fairless Works steel mill in the mid-20th century would be in the path of pollution from Elcon’s stack. If built, the plant would be near the Delaware River, directly across from Hamilton Township and upwind from Bordentown City.
On Tuesday, April 30, the body that has the final say — the Falls Township Board of Supervisors — will meet regarding Elcon for the first time. In a press release, Falls Township says the Elcon matter “could be decided” during the special meeting, to be held at 7 p.m. in Keller Hall at Pennsbury High School West in Fairless Hills.
The meeting comes on the heels of a March 26 unanimous decision from the Falls Township planning commission to not recommend plans for the Elcon facility. The planning commission does not have legal authority, but the Falls supervisor board does factor its recommendations into decisions.
Then, in May, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) will announce its decision on a series of Phase II permit applications submitted by Elcon. If deemed technically complete, the process advances to a 45-day public comment period.
Both the Falls Township meeting and the PADEP decision are important moments in a process that has drawn out for five years. But neither necessarily marks the end.
If Elcon receives the approvals it seeks, it would build a 70,000-square-foot storage and treatment facility on a 33-acre plot of land on Dean Sievers Place. The plant would accept toxic waste from approximately 20 tanker trucks daily, carrying aqueous material from automotive shops, mining operations, and pharmaceutical and industrial manufacturing plants. Elcon says waste would come to Falls Township via truck only from 10 East Coast states.
Liquid waste would be stored in tanks on the property until ready for treatment. Elcon is unique in that it uses thermal oxidation, not incineration, to treat waste. The treatment process separates material into four parts: sludge, salt, distilled water, and volatile organic compound (VOC) vapors. The VOCs would go up the facility’s stack, where they would be treated and then released into the air. Elcon’s current proposal says it will operate the thermal oxidizer for 8,400 hours per year, meaning the facility would emit from its stack on average 23 hours per day, every day. Among the resulting pollutants are nitrogen oxides, which can combine with the ambient air to create smog. The company claims on its website that its emissions will not have an adverse impact on air quality “in Bucks County or surrounding areas in Pennsylvania.”
Sludge and salts are shipped off the property for final disposal. This is the purpose of the facility: to convert the liquid waste into a solid, which is lighter and cheaper to transport.
Critics have decried the plant’s location as much as its purpose. The facility would be built a mile from the Delaware River, and just 2,000 feet from Biles Creek, a tidally influenced tributary of the Delaware. The site also encompasses wetlands that are connected to the river. Water experts say a spill at the facility could easily wind up in the Delaware, polluting a water supply used by 15 million people.
In a 2015 letter, the Philadelphia Water Department, which takes 60 percent of the water for the City of Philadelphia from the Delaware River, wrote that the Elcon facility should be rejected “given the risk of multiple-day contamination of the tidal drinking water supply to millions of people located downstream.”
Elcon disputes such a risk exists but has agreed to a number of measures to ease concerns. They include installing a barrier wall and limiting construction to the 22 acres of its property not considered wetlands.
But the measures haven’t been enough to quiet criticism of the proposal.
Bordentown City deputy mayor John Brodowski has long opposed Elcon. “Of course any kind of construction jobs are good. And dealing with these chemicals has to happen; they are a byproduct of modern society. This facility could be a good way to do that,” he says. “But it shouldn’t be here. The risks far outweigh the reward. Fifty permanent jobs doesn’t seem to be worth the impact it could potentially have on millions of people.”
Concern is especially strong in New Jersey’s riverside communities, which would be affected by anything Elcon might do to the air or water. Tracking air pollution is extremely technical and complex, but the general rule is that pollution affects a 30-mile radius from the source, guided by the prevailing wind. In Pennsylvania, that wind goes west to east, meaning that New Jersey would suffer the bulk of the pollution effects from the Elcon facility.
This 30-mile radius would cover a large portion of the state, stretching beyond New Brunswick to the north, Howell to the east, and Cherry Hill to the south. But the greater effects would be felt closer to the facility, where the pollutants would be more concentrated. Within four miles of the proposed Elcon plant, there are nearly 40 schools just in New Jersey, including Lalor Elementary School in Hamilton about two miles away, and Wilson Elementary School in Hamilton and Clara Barton Elementary School in Bordentown City about three miles away.
In fact, there are more than 10,000 schoolchildren within the four-mile radius, according to a resolution passed by the supervisor board in Newtown Borough, Pennsylvania. Newtown is just one of many municipalities on both sides of the Delaware River, including Bordentown City and Bordentown Township, to have passed similar resolutions opposing the facility.
Air pollution could also have an effect on water quality, says Fred Stine, citizen action coordinator with Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a nonprofit based in Bristol, Pennsylvania. Small pieces of solid waste, called particulate, go into the air with the gases expelled by the stack. The particulate matter eventually falls to ground level, where it can be inhaled by people or enter water sources like rivers and streams.
“Air pollution and hazardous waste accidents do not know New Jersey from Pennsylvania,” says Russell Zerbo, advocacy coordinator for Clean Air Council, an environmental nonprofit based in Philadelphia. “It doesn’t turn around at the state line.”
PADEP doesn’t factor in such information, though, when considering proposals like Elcon’s. Its rules require a strict focus on the facility and land itself as they relate to the permits Elcon seeks. PADEP doesn’t consider the potential danger of waste traveling to or from the facility, nor does it consider the existing pollution burden on the area of the application.
Elcon says concerns about the facility and PADEP’s limitations are unfounded.
“Elcon believes that its applications comply with all of the applicable regulations and that it has taken many steps to go beyond what is required by the regulations in an effort to address public concerns,” says Joel Bolstein, an environmental lawyer at Fox Rothschild, the Philadelphia law firm that represents Elcon. “Also, Elcon believes the facility is properly zoned, and it can fully comply with all applicable local ordinances.”
Elcon has taken plenty of steps to appease critics, including conducting voluntary pollution and spill modeling, agreeing to install monitoring systems in the facility’s stack, and even making plans to elevate the facility above the 100-year and 500-year floodplains. Elcon also says it will not take fracking, medical, or radioactive waste. The company agreed to install groundwater monitoring wells and an impermeable liner and shut-off valve in its stormwater basin. The facility itself will have zero wastewater discharges, according to PADEP.
During its attempts to build new facilities elsewhere in the world, Elcon took similar steps to win over local residents, with no luck.
Elcon says it has developed “the most eco-friendly way to treat hazardous liquid waste streams.” If its literature is accurate, that is true at least compared to alternatives, such as incineration and deep-well injection. The company says its emissions will be “99.9 percent free of contaminants,” “will not be a major source of nitrogen oxides,” and “will not have an adverse impact on air quality or ‘ozone days’ in Bucks County or surrounding areas in Pennsylvania.”
Some of those claims are misleading, though. An air dispersion model released by the company voluntarily in February, 2019, says Elcon will release carbon monoxide, lead, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter into the air. A plan approval document submitted to PADEP in October, 2018, also says Elcon wants permission to emit 10 tons per year of hydrochloric acid. When released as a gas, hydrochloric acid can mix with water in the atmosphere, resulting in acid rain. It can also appear in what is called a dry deposition, where acidic particles react with the atmosphere to form larger particles that can be harmful to human health, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The October, 2018, plan approval document also states Elcon’s intent to release 23.4 tons per year of nitrogen oxides, just under the EPA standard for a major polluter. Elcon contradicts its own claims in a footnote on the same page, saying it is seeking permission to emit nitrogen oxides at the EPA major polluter standard of 25 tons per year. Elsewhere in the 313-page document are dozens of pages of testing results from its facility in Israel written in Hebrew, without further explanation.
Elcon’s claims regarding air quality are perhaps the most alarming when considering its proposed nitrogen oxides emission and what it might do to the air quality in the area. Nitrogen oxides are a major contributor to the development of ground-level ozone. Also known as smog, ground-level ozone is a dangerous pollutant. According to the EPA, ground-level ozone can cause health issues including damaging airways and aggravating existing lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. The EPA says ground-level ozone continues to damage the lungs even when the symptoms have disappeared.
Even without Elcon, the Trenton region has some of the worst air quality in the country. According to the American Lung Association, Mercer County had 29 high ozone days in the last three years, the worst in New Jersey. This distinction takes on increased importance when considering that New Jersey as a state fails federal standards for air quality. Of the 15 New Jersey counties tracking ground level ozone, 11 did not meet American Lung Association standards, including Mercer County.
Bucks County, meanwhile, had 28 high ozone days in the last three years, tied for the worst in Pennsylvania. Neighboring Philadelphia County also had 28 high ozone days.
Burlington County does not track air quality. But, with Mercer County just to the north and Bucks County to its immediate west, Burlington County has some of the nation’s worst ground-level ozone levels around it. The region as a whole belongs to the Newark-NYC and Philadelphia-Camden regions, the 10th and 25th worst for ozone in the country.
Because of this Elcon has met resistance from residents in the area ever since it first submitted an application in 2014.
At the state level, Herb Conaway and Troy Singleton, who represented Bordentown in the Assembly, introduced a bill in 2016 opposing Elcon’s construction. Linda Greenstein, who represents Hamilton, submitted an identical bill to the Senate. Neither made it to the floor for a full vote.
Conaway tried again in October, 2018, this time with the backing of Carol Murphy (D-Burlington), Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer) and Anthony Verrelli (D-Mercer). Singleton, now a state senator, introduced the same bill in the senate. Both await votes in committee.
The freeholder boards in Burlington and Mercer counties have also adopted a resolution opposing the construction of Elcon’s facility.
These resolutions are about the extent of the action that can be taken in New Jersey.
“It’s really fortunate New Jersey residents have gotten involved with this,” says Zerbo of Clean Air Council. “Legally, people in New Jersey really don’t have much they can do in this process. You have to have this fight in the court of public opinion and apply as much pressure as possible.”
A facility of this type often attracts opposition from environmentalists and concerned residents. But the urgency around the Elcon proposal seems heightened because the perceived risks are so high. The battle over the Falls Township facility boils down to this: is the unknown company trustworthy enough to be allowed to test its method in the heart of the Interstate 95 corridor, along a river that provides drinking water for millions of Americans? Do the boards with approval power know enough about how the facility would operate to make an informed decision? And is there anything in the proposal that legally allows opponents to prevent Elcon from doing what it wants?
“Elcon boasts this is cutting-edge technology,” says Fred Stine of Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “But they have very little experience. They have one facility in Israel. The question out there is: How much due diligence is PADEP and Falls Township doing to see how that facility is operating in Israel? What they’re doing in Israel is a good indication of what they’ll be doing here.”
Deep in the deserts of southern Israel, among chemical plants and disposal sites, rests a small toxic waste treatment plant that is Elcon’s only location in the world. Founded in 2003, Elcon started treating toxic waste in 2004 at a now-shuttered facility in Haifa, Israel’s third largest city. The plant was located within the city limits, about a quarter-mile from a residential area.
In Haifa Elcon regularly violated Israeli environmental regulations, according to a document in Elcon’s PADEP application. In April, 2012, alone the facility exceeded wastewater discharge limits for total organic carbon, chloride, potassium, sulfates, copper, and nickel. That same year it also exceeded levels of sulfide, nickel, and potentially toxic halogenated carbons multiple times. (Elcon has since developed a zero wastewater system, meaning that if it works as advertised, the Falls Township facility would not discharge effluent.)
Then, several years later, an Israeli government effort to clean up Haifa Bay forced Elcon and other polluters to close their facilities.
Elcon relocated to Ramat Hovav, the site of Israel’s main hazardous waste disposal facility. Inside Ramat Hovav Industrial Zone, there are more than a dozen chemical factories, including plants that produce bromine, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. The Israeli government developed the zone for industry it wanted far away from population centers.
But the government also resettled Bedouin tribes nearby, including one village less than a mile from Ramat Hovav Industrial Zone. A study conducted by the Israeli Ministry of Health in July, 2004 — long before Elcon relocated there — found higher rates of miscarriages, prenatal deaths, respiratory problems, and birth defects among Bedouin in the area, according to a report by Al-Jazeera. The report added that residents have noticed a prevalence of other health issues, including cancer, childhood asthma, eye infections, and infertility.
Now Elcon hopes to locate its second toxic waste facility here.
Not much is known about how Elcon’s process works and how it would scale to the larger facility proposed for Falls Township. Elcon has been in its new location in Israel for several years now, but the facility hasn’t come up to full operation yet, Stine says. It currently treats about 120,000 tons of aqueous industrial waste, just more than half the amount proposed for Falls Township.
Despite this, Elcon has focused for nearly a decade on expanding its reach. The search for a place amenable to a second Elcon location has spanned two continents.
From 2011 until 2015, Elcon targeted several towns in the northern Italian province of Lombardy, including Castellanza, 17 miles from the city center of Milan.
In Castellanza the project faced stiff opposition. Residents protested for more than two years, organizing marches with hundreds of people, jamming local squares. Elcon eventually backed down, pulling the proposal in 2014, according to Italian news outlet VareseNews.
In 2011, Elcon approached the municipal government in Lakewood, Ocean County, about building a plant there. During a meeting of the local council, Elcon representatives said Lakewood was attractive because it was “well situated along the pharmaceutical belt that runs essentially from Philadelphia up to New York,” according to official minutes from the meeting. Ultimately, Lakewood rejected Elcon.
So company officials turned their attention to a place they thought would be more agreeable: Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Elcon submitted a proposal in 2014 for 33 acres of a former steel mill along the Delaware River in Falls Township. The surrounding industrial park already included several landfills, incinerators, and manufacturing plants. Elcon seemed to fit in just fine there.
“One of the foolish things industry has said is if you use chemicals in your life, you have to accept this facility here,” Zerbo says. “This area has an immense waste burden. They have done nothing but literally dump on Falls Township since U.S. Steel closed.”
Falls Township owes much of its history to 3,800 acres of former farmland abutting the Delaware River.
It was there, in March, 1951, that United States Steel opened a mill. Dubbed the Fairless Works, the factory employed thousands of people and attracted scores of families to the surrounding area. Two new housing developments were built in Falls Township to satisfy the demand: one with 1,100 units called Fairless Hills and another with 4,000 homes named Levittown. The population of Falls Township increased ten-fold, from 3,000 to 30,000, during this time.
U.S. Steel stayed a major employer in the area for two decades. It began decreasing operations at Fairless Works in 1973, though, sending Falls Township searching for the next use for the land that was so vital to its growth and economy.
In 1970, further south along the river, a 46-acre landfill opened. It became a key moment for the future of riverside development in Falls Township. The landfill continued to expand, eventually reaching its current 566 acres.
Fairless Works remained opened in a decreased capacity until 2001, at which point U.S. Steel began cleaning up and subdividing the polluted property it left behind. Pennsylvania stepped in four years later, in 2005, to sweeten the pot by designating the complex a Keystone Opportunity Investment Zone (KOIZ). As a KOIZ the renamed Keystone Industrial Port Center would receive a substantial reduction in local and state taxes. In exchange, the KOIZ had to create a plan to attract development to the former U.S. Steel land.
Similar deals were struck across Pennsylvania as part of a larger umbrella program, the nearly identically named Keystone Opportunity Zone program. KOZ began in 1998 as a limited-run initiative to boost depressed areas. Initially experts hailed the program as the model for stimulating economic development.
But in June, 2009, the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee released a study that painted a different picture. The KOZ program had “overstated” job creation and capital investment figures, the study says. It concluded that “many KOZ participants and their associated KOZ projects provide little, if any, job creation or capital investment in return for the KOZ tax exemptions/abatement benefits they receive.”
The government still hailed the KOIZ in Falls Township as a success, though, on the strength of the complex’s mission to fill the brownfield with environmentally friendly projects. Green energy companies, like AE Polysilicon and Gamesa Energy, came to Falls Township. A large data center opened there. There was talk of turning some parcels into large solar farms. For the effort, the Keystone Industrial Port Complex (KIPC) won the 2010 Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence.
In 2018 PADEP announced that the complex had entered into a Sustainability Partnership with EPA, a pledge to reduce waste, natural resource consumption, and energy use. PADEP lauded KIPC as a success, but by that point it hardly resembled the green industrial zone it set out to be.
Falls Township, in particular, sought to attract a wider range of industry to KIPC, having changed its zoning laws in 2008 to allow for hazardous waste and landfill operations on the site. There are more than 50 companies there now, including steel manufacturers, medical marijuana facilities, material suppliers, scrap metal yards, salt distributors, and chemical labs and warehouses. Nearby, there are three landfills, a contaminated soil incinerator, and a municipal waste incinerator. All are adjacent, but not all are included in KIPC.
Development isn’t finished at the site, either. Zerbo says Waste Management, which runs the landfills, wants to construct new gas flares in the area. Gas flares are a way for landfills to burn off waste gases created by the facility. Waste gases usually are a mixture of methane, carbon dioxide, and other substances.
And, of course, there’s the possibility of Elcon.
Across the Delaware River, the residents of Bordentown City wonder what the effect on them will be. When U.S. Steel was open, they would wake up to house covered with red dust, particulate from the plant. In recent years Bordentown City has been subject to strong, unpleasant odors coming from the landfills and industry in Falls Township. On the homepage of the Bordentown City website, alongside listings for community events, is an image of a fish and a dirty sock with “Reporting Offensive Odor” written above it. A link leads to a webpage with phone numbers residents can call to report bad smells, including the DEP in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The Bordentown City deputy mayor, Brodowski, knows the effect industry across the river has had on his constituents and worries what Elcon might bring. He has been a vocal presence at meetings about the Elcon project and has tried to rally people to fight against the proposal. There are many things about Elcon’s quest to come to Falls Township that don’t sit well with him, among them the existence of a “green” industrial park where a toxic waste treatment plant could be a viable tenant.
“Really, there should be some sort of accountability for that,” Brodowski says. “There was a bait-and-switch along the way.”
The KOIZ status for the Keystone Industrial Port Complex site expired December 31, 2018. Environmentalists like Zerbo expect Elcon to seek the tax incentives anyway, citing the fact that the applications for the facility were filed well before the KOIZ benefits lapsed.
But there’s a chance the KOIZ era is over in Falls Township. And to Brodowski, who has seen and heard stories about Bordentown City bearing the brunt of the industry along the Falls Township side of the river for decades, it’s a chance to change direction. “When you start digging into it, it’s a bigger problem than just one facility,” Brodowski says. “It may be a really good opportunity for the state and Falls Township to reevaluate what is happening in that complex because it has gone in the wrong direction.”
Those who have been fighting Elcon from the beginning see the next few weeks as the chance to gain ground in a battle against an unyielding opponent.
“There are glimmers of hope all over the place,” Brodowski says. “There are many bodies who could put a stop to it. It’s just frustrating how long it’s been going on, and it’s still happening.”
The Falls Township supervisors will hear the proposal for the first time during the much anticipated April 30 meeting. The board said in a press release it couldn’t take action on Elcon before the company submitted a formal land development plan.
Then, the PADEP review of Elcon’s Phase II applications ends in May, triggering the start of a 45-day period for public comment on the project.
“It’s going to be a short public comment period,” Zerbo says. “If you’re concerned about the prospect of having a toxic waste facility basically in the Delaware River, you need to be talking to your neighbors and your public officials now.”
But no matter what the government decides, it most likely won’t be the end of Elcon. The company’s Falls Township proposal has been denied by PADEP three times already, once in 2015 and twice in 2017.
Elcon and its critics are gearing up for a lengthy legal battle should Falls Township rule against the proposal. Brodowski says Elcon’s attorneys hinted as much on March 26 after the Falls Township planning commission voted to not recommend the project.
Delaware Riverkeeper Network has been soliciting donations to fight Elcon in preparation for this moment. A crowdfunding campaign by the nonprofit in early April gained $15,282.
Even going as far back as March, Stine had been recommending that municipalities share services and legal representation against Elcon. He noted that some municipal governments — particularly Bordentown City’s — have been more active than others in the fight. “Bordentown City can’t shoulder all the burden to benefit all these towns,” Stine says.
The likelihood that a legal battle might ensue is increased by the fact that PADEP can only deny the project on the specifics of Elcon’s application. It doesn’t consider the logistics involved of getting the waste to or from Elcon, or any scenarios outside normal operations, such as a spill or accident. PADEP can only look at what Elcon has provided to it.
Critics worry about this, particularly because Elcon has made a lot of promises it can easily break without penalty once it builds a facility. Elcon says it will accept waste from 10 states, but there’s nothing stopping it from widening its service area. It says it will ship waste to specialized landfills, but Elcon can save money by getting a waiver to reclassify the waste coming out of its facility as not hazardous and dispose of the treated waste in existing landfills nearby.
The company has repeatedly said it will not accept waste from fracking, but Brodowski says the proposed facility will have the capability to handle it, leaving Elcon’s word as the only barrier to entry into the fracking industry. Pennsylvania is one of the top states for fracking in the country, providing a large, local market should Elcon change its mind.
Even enforceable pollution limits are often a suggestion. Zerbo says the precedent is there, with facilities in KIPC already exceeding air pollution regulations and paying the fines as “the cost of doing business.”
There are also lots of details Elcon has yet to release or possibly even decide, such as where exactly it will be sending the waste or the routes the full tanker trucks will take to and from the facility. Elcon has agreed to map the approach route so that trucks will not pass by schools, nursing homes, and hospitals. But the promise only applies to the final stretch to the facility, once in Falls. Nothing has been revealed about the path trucks would take to get to that point, including which roads in New Jersey they would take to get into Pennsylvania.
Trucks carrying hazardous material take local roads every day, something that Brodowski and other Elcon opponents admit. But their concern is the concentration of trucks that will exist with a facility in the area. Elcon says it will receive approximately 20 truckloads of toxic waste every day and has the capabilities to process 17 of them daily. It has not disclosed how many trucks will leave the Falls facility with freshly treated waste each day.
And should there be a spill or accident, the plan to handle it is unclear. Stine says the company has proposed using the driver as the first line of defense. “If a guy is in an accident, he probably won’t be cleaning up spills,” Stine says.
Brodowski also worries about an accident during the transportation process, particularly because response could fall on local emergency services departments without the equipment or training to handle hazardous waste.
“They’re the first responders,” Brodowski says. “They’re on their own. There’s not going to be any assistance. I didn’t hear anything about special training or increased budget allocations or anything like that. It’s frustrating that it’s looked at in a vacuum, and not the impact it will have on all these compounding other factors.”
Despite the large number of missing details about the yet-to-be-built Falls Township facility, Elcon also already has plans to double its size to 140,000 square feet in a second phase of construction.
There are still plenty of questions remaining about Elcon and its quest to build a plant in Falls Township. But one thing is for sure: Elcon has once again met opposition as determined as it is. As history has shown, whether Elcon’s facility becomes reality largely depends on how many local residents decide they want to speak up against it.
“People have their opinions about environmentalists,” Brodowski says. “But the reality is if these things aren’t in place, there’s a direct impact on your health and your quality of life. This is a real thing that is happening right in our backyard.”