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At Some Superfund Sites, Toxic Legacies Linger

SAYREVILLE, N.J. - There was nothing unspoiled about the woods that Robert Spiegel trudged through recently on a single-minded quest for wrongs against nature.

The woods off Horseshoe Road here in Middlesex County are still tainted by human intrusions from decades ago. They are the target of a Superfund project - a lengthy federal cleanup of a former chemical-processing plant that Mr. Spiegel, executive director of the Edison Wetlands Association, said was inadequately financed and too prolonged.

Like many Superfund sites in New Jersey and elsewhere in the New York City area, it has an intriguing history that is hard to trace - mobsters reportedly owned one business here before abandoning it abruptly years ago. In 1981 a brush fire exposed 70 drums containing silver cyanide and other dangerous chemicals.

This 12-acre site is among the 114 hazardous waste sites in New Jersey on the Environmental Protection Agency's National Priorities List, which includes about 1,200 sites nationwide that the agency has determined present a "significant risk to human health or the environment."

On Long Island, 26 hazardous waste sites are on the National Priorities List; 15 in Nassau County and 11 in Suffolk, including the former Roosevelt Field in Garden City, where Charles Lindbergh took off for his historic trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. In Connecticut, 14 sites are on the list, including 3 each in New Haven and Windham Counties and 2 each in Fairfield and Hartford Counties.

The federal Superfund program to clean up the most dangerous hazardous waste sites began in 1980 after 22,000 tons of toxic waste were discovered dumped in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, N.Y. Billions of dollars have been spent since then completing the cleanup of more than 1,000 sites nationwide, but money for the program has been harder to come by since a Superfund tax levied against industries generating pollution, which helped pay for cleanups, expired in 1995.

"Government and private industry have been historically indifferent to environmental consequences, and this generation is paying for it," said Richard Amper, the executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, an environmental group. "And this generation needs to clean it up."

But the Environmental Protection Agency's task is not easy, even though it has hard-working, well-trained staff members, said Ella Filippone, a longtime environmentalist who is executive director of the Passaic River Coalition in New Jersey. Business owners and politicians sometimes raise objections to cleanups that the agency is obligated to examine even though that is time-consuming, she said.

"It's the politics that interferes sometimes," she said, adding that there needs to be a point where officials conclude about a given site, "Let's clean it up."

Alan J. Steinberg, the E.P.A. administrator for Superfund's Region 2, which includes New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, defended the Superfund, calling it "one of the most effective programs in federal government," and said politics did not play a role in E.P.A. decisions.

"Our motto is 'the polluter pays,' " he said, adding that 75 percent of polluters currently singled out by the agency have paid for cleanups and that $1 billion in fees were recovered from polluters last year.

The E.P.A. does not estimate the number of hazardous waste sites over all in the country or, generally, in individual states, because there is federal and state and multiagency involvement, and Superfund projects are at too many different stages for quantification, a spokeswoman said.

In Middlesex County, on the 12-acre Horseshoe Road site, there are buried toxins that leak into the nearby Raritan River, a home to commercial crabbing; patches of underbrush with possibly contaminated debris; and toxic sludge.

Mr. Spiegel made two discoveries on his exploratory trek, accompanied by the wetlands association's director of operations, David Wheeler, and a reporter and photographer. He stumbled upon a strikingly purple puddle of water marked by a faint deer track, and a tiny green frog that struggled for life on an old railway tie. Mr. Spiegel picked the frog up and examined it, then dropped it in a nearby pond.

Both the colorful puddle and the floundering frog may have been contaminated by chemicals, whose odor was detectable at the edge of the Raritan, a river once ranked as the 16th-most polluted in the nation. In 1989 the Environmental Protection Agency conducted its first soil analysis on the site, which has four separate areas, including a drum dump and a pesticide dump. E.P.A. investigators found volatile organic compounds, or VOCs; heavy metals; pesticides; and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

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