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As the Northeast states take stock of the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy, a new concern is coming into focus. New York and New Jersey have dozens of superfund sites close to the shore. Some of these toxic zones were flooded by Sandy's storm surge.
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Ilya Marritz, of member station WNYC, reports that in New Jersey's largest city there are worries that toxic chemicals may have been swept into people's homes.
ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: If you want to know why Sandy has some people worried, consider what Irene did. You remember Irene. She was that hurricane last year. Irene's rains caused major flooding on the Passaic River. Tests later found the river had swept PCBs and dioxin - two chemicals linked to cancer - onto a little league ball field in the town of Lyndhurst. The Environmental Protection Agency decided to decontaminate that section of river.
Now Ana Baptista from the Ironbound Community Corporation, a nonprofit group in Newark, is trying to figure out what Sandy did.
ANA BAPTISTA: Did you get flooding in your basement?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
BAPTISTA: (Foreign language spoken)
MARRITZ: We're in eastern Newark, a few blocks from the river. Baptista approaches a woman in a fuzzy housedress, smoking a cigarette in the cold night air. Maria Gutierrez doesn't speak much English, but the women manage to converse in a mix of Spanish and Portuguese.
BAPTISTA: The wall was contaminated.
MARIA GUTIERREZ}: (Foreign language spoken)
BAPTISTA: Yeah, she said everything in her basement was ruined because it was contaminated. So the walls...
GUTIERREZ}: (Foreign language spoken)
BAPTISTA: She said everything was swimming down there in...
MARRITZ: In this little grid of streets known as the Island, sewers backed up and the Passaic River spilled its banks. Dirty water reached as high as first floor windowsills. After we leave Gutierrez's stoop, Baptista says flooded Newarkers are still preoccupied with day to day survival: replacing windows and boilers, repairing cars.
BAPTISTA: It's like sort of the immediate thing and it can have an immediate effect on people. But the long-term, honestly, I do worry about the chemicals that are coming from these industries nearby.
MARRITZ: One particular worry is a 10-minute walk from here, a former factory where Agent Orange was manufactured all through the Vietnam War. Today it's a superfund site. Is it a risk? Baptista says the state and federal government have provided almost no guidance.
BAPTISTA: The only advisories that I saw were the advisories from the city, condemning the properties because of flood and structural damage to their properties. No one came out and told them, be careful with the flood water because it could be contaminated.
MARRITZ: The EPA says there is no immediate hazard connected with the superfund site.
Ryan Miller is a research engineer at Rutgers who's spent two years studying the lower Passaic. And he agrees. But Miller says there may be some long-term health risk, if toxic sediment from the river was churned up by the storm and swept into basements. PCB's and dioxins don't move on their own, they need some kind of grit to travel.
RYAN MILLER: Soil particles or sediment particles at the bottom of the river act as colloids, they're kind of like the car. And the contamination is kind of like the passenger. They bring it along for the ride.
MARRITZ: Once inside someone's basement, dioxins and PCBs can turn into gases and start to poison the air. This is possible but Miller believes it's unlikely because Sandy was a different kind of storm. While Irene brought heavy rains and swollen rivers, a so-called outbound flow, Sandy's storm surge was an inbound flow of seawater pushing up-stream.
MILLER: When it comes to erosion, sediment transport, it's generally much riskier under an outbound flow scenario.
MARRITZ: Miller says testing the river for suspended solids should quickly tell us whether Sandy, in fact, churned up the river bottom where the toxins are.
Even if there's nothing to be worried about, advocates, including Ana Baptista, are alarmed by how little the government has had to say. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection hasn't directly addressed what's in the water that flooded the basements. The agency ordered industrial businesses to hold their waste water in tanks on November 2, four days after Sandy.
BAPTISTA: Because of what happened in Irene, we should have been prepared to issue warnings right away to residents that got flooded.
MARRITZ: With more mega-storms predicted for the years ahead, the Passaic will almost certainly flood again. Baptista hopes the next time the government will quickly tell citizens what it knows about what's in the water.
For NPR News, I'm Ilya Marritz in New York.
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