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Unknown chemicals at New Jersey plant may prompt evacuations

Residents in Howell, New Jersey are advised to prepare for potential evacuation while crews try to identify chemicals found at an industrial plant.
Unknown chemicals at New Jersey plant may prompt evacuations
Posted at 5:41 PM, Apr 24, 2023

Residents in a New Jersey community are being advised to prepare for a potential evacuation as emergency crews from the Environmental Protection Agency work to remove barrels that may contain hazardous chemicals from a former industrial plant.

"EPA has run preliminary field hazard categorization; these preliminary tests give us an idea of what we think the substances may be," said Michael Mannino, EPA on-scene coordinator. "To confirm that, we send those samples out to a lab for analysis."

The former industrial plant is located about 60 miles south of New York City in the township of Howell, New Jersey, near the border with Farmingdale.

In February, the plant's new owner used an old incinerator to burn some barrels on the property. That started a fire, sending smoke billowing through nearby neighborhoods and setting off alarms for responding emergency fire crews.

"Since the initial fire in February, we have a fence on the property," Mannino said. "EPA has also established a 24/7 security team so that we can assure that there's no trespassing or vandalism."

According to Victor Cook, the emergency management director in Howell, whatever is in the more than 400 rusting abandoned drums is still unknown.

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The decayed barrels are not the only concern; more than 1,000 small containers filled with unknown chemicals were also found at the site.

"Residents should be concerned about this site because of the vast unknowns that are on the property, but the more the EPA works on this site to clear it up, the less panic in leaving your home is going to be," Cook said.

About 2,500 residents in the community could be affected by a potential evacuation, but many people, including officials, are trusting in the process before resorting to worry.

"I have been in touch with the local council, our Farmingdale local council ... and I know that the EPA is involved at this point, and I trust that the people involved will be able to resolve this situation without even having to resort to an evacuation," said Virgie Brandl, a local resident. 

"If something was to happen here, it would affect some residents that would probably need to leave their house," Cook said. "With that said, since the EPA has been on site and working on this site, the chance of that evacuation is almost nil."

"My take on the evacuation plan, I think it's always good to be proactive," Mannino said. "The township put the plan together; the EPA had no involvement, but we applaud them for stepping up and making sure the residents are safe."

The agency hopes to remove all materials by the end of the summer. Then, teams will continue to do tests to make sure there's no contamination in the soil, air or groundwater.

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