Chemical Control fire burned 15 hours, seared memories for 35 years

A hazardous materials site fire in Elizabeth that erupted on April 20, 1980, helped lead to the passage of the Superfund legislation later that year but three-and-a-half decades that passed and the location continues to be an environmental stain and a lesson in failure.

The Chemical Control Corporation (CCC) site consisted of a 2-acre parcel of land adjacent to the Elizabeth River where, from 1970 to 1978, a hazardous waste storage, treatment, and disposal facility operated accepting various types of chemicals including: acids, arsenic, bases, cyanide, flammable solvents, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), compressed gases, biological agents, and pesticides.

Throughout its operations, CCC was cited for discharge and waste storage violations.

In 1979, things got so bad that the State of New Jersey initiated a site cleanup that included removal of bulk solids and liquids, drums at and below the soil surface, gas cylinders, infectious wastes, radioactive wastes, highly explosive liquids, debris, tanks, and 3 feet of soil. Excavated soil areas were replaced with a 3-foot gravel cover.

An explosion and fire in April 1980 interrupted the site cleanup and created additional cleanup needs; the site was completely destroyed and reportedly, drums of burning waste launched into the air.

Contaminated runoff from fire fighting efforts entered the Elizabeth River. After the fire and explosion, the preliminary cleanup was accelerated and was completed in 1981.

The explosion and fire that engulfed the Chemical Control Corporation on April 21, 1980 came in the middle of a toxic political contest in Elizabeth. Longtime Mayor Thomas G. Dunn was being challenged by a young lawmaker, Assemblyman Raymond Lesniak, as well as David Conti, an attorney who was supported by the Union County Democratic organization.

Many people forget that Lesniak, now a state senator who intends to run for governor next year, and many of those who now dominate the party machinery once had very little awe and respect for that institution.

In that fierce blaze, two-thirds of the 40,000 drums of chemical wastes stored on an isolated two-acre site in an industrial area along the Elizabeth River were destroyed. The cause of the fire, which burned for 15 hours, has never been determined, although unstable chemicals are the prime suspect.

Fortunately a wind blowing eastward carried clouds of toxic gases away from the heart of Elizabeth, and the clouds had largely dissipated by the time they reached the next population center, on Staten Island.

William Carracino formed a company called Chemical Control Corporation (CCC) in 1971. This company was supposed to get rid of toxic wastes by incineration. Over the years, thousands of 55-gallon drums of toxic waste piled up, waiting to be destroyed.

Carracino, because of some financial problems, became associated with mob members. In 1977, John Albert took control of the company at gun-point. He was associated with the Genovese-Tieri crime family and also controlled many other waste disposal sites.

At the time of the take-over, Carracino warned everyone, from his customers to the Department of Criminal Justice, that Albert might burn down CCC for the insurance money.

Carracino was called to testify about the illegal goings-on at CCC, but right before his court date he suffered two broken legs in an impossibly “freak” accident, and had to spend 30 days in the hospital.

The situation at CCC went from bad to worse. Many thousands more 55-gallon drums were added to the piles.

Not only was there a huge danger building up, which the government ignored, but the government was actually doing business with the mobsters who controlled CCC.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) used CCC to dispose of discarded pharmaceuticals and other drugs, along with “precursor” chemicals used to make illegal drugs.

Federal agents involved in this said they actually witnessed the destruction of the stuff they brought, but in 1979 the State Department of Environmental Protection went in and found bales of marijuana, narcotics, steroids, and “precursor” chemicals.

Albert was later indicted on charges that he and his henchmen operated a drug lab in New Jersey.

The looming environmental catastrophe at CCC became so alarming that New Jersey finally “shut it down” and took inventory. State health officials reported that there were enough poisons and pesticides to give everyone on Staten Island and lower Manhattan a lethal dose of poisons in the event of a fire.

The army was called out to remove some of the more hazardous explosives stored there (that were supposed to have been destroyed), that the ATF couldn’t handle.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and the New Jersey Department of Criminal Justice was put in charge of cleaning up this mess.

In spite of a court order prohibiting any more 55-gallon drums from being brought there, many thousands more (up to 30,000) were actually delivered to the site.

The total number of dangerous 55-gallon drums totaled between 50,000 and 60,000. An hour before midnight on April 21, 1980 the place caught on fire. Arson was suspected. Lesniak and some of his campaign supporters showed up along with the city firefighters who had endorsed his campaign.

This four-alarm fire had flames 300-feet in the air. The heat was so intense that firefighters had to crawl under their trucks for protection. Water being poured on the fire vaporized in midair. TV cameras and journalists from other media outlets converged on the dramatic scene.

Six hundred feet from the fire was a high-pressure gas pipeline. A little further was a natural gas tank with many millions of cubic feet of fuel, and a few 60,000 gallon propane tanks. Down the street were some gasoline storage tanks, each with over 100,000 gallons in it. The fire raged uncontrollably for hours and kept spreading.

New York City sent a fire boat to battle the fire from the water and Mayor Koch went to Staten Island to set up a command post. New York City police were alerted that Staten Island might have to be evacuated in the middle of the night because of the huge clouds of toxic smoke which contained benzene, chloroform, toluene, and other chlorinated hydrocarbons. It also contained carcinogenic pesticides.

Firefighters became sick from the hot ash and chemically permeated smoke. They were burned from acid that rained down on them. The millions of gallons of water that was being poured onto the fire washed deadly chemicals into the Elizabeth River.

The next day the fire was brought under control. If it had reached the fuel tanks, one journalist said, “We could have lost Elizabeth.”

After the fire, the clean-up began and was still going on at the time of the book’s publishing in 1985. At a cost of tens of millions of tax dollars, incredible government mismanagement, and blatant disregard for the environment, even the scandal-plagued clean-up was a huge travesty. And in the end, no one was held accountable for this ecological disaster.

Thirty-five years later, CCC remains among the active locations listed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List of hazardous waste sites subject to cleanup under the federal Superfund.


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