On December 3, Mayor Steven Fulop, local officials, and representatives of environmental groups gathered on a windswept field underneath the Pulaski Skyway to announce the construction of Skyway Park, a thirty-two acre park along the Hackensack River on the former site of the notorious PJP Landfill. Standing quietly among the assembled audience was Mario Verdibello.
Thirty-five years earlier as a young engineer Verdibello had masterminded the cleanup of the chemically contaminated site. Now a new park would feature walking paths along the Hackensack River and a grove of 500 trees to commemorate Jersey City residents who died from Covid-19 but did not receive proper funerals due to safety protocols in place at the time.
But back in 1985 when Verdibello went to work, the idea that the land would one day become a park would have been laughable. Since its closing, the PJP Landfill had literally been on fire, an apocalyptic hellscape belching toxic gas across Route 1 and 9 into the nearby Marion neighborhood. Indeed, the federal government had declared it a Superfund site. Putting the fires out and removing the thousands of barrels of toxic waste would fall to Verdibello and his crew.
I thought it would be interesting to sit down with Verdibello and hear how he got it done.
Verdibello tells the story of the PJP cleanup with the enthusiasm of a proud father. And like any good parent, he has multiple photo albums of his baby. I’ve included some of the images here.
JCT: I understand that you that you got involved with the PJP landfill early on. Can you just talk a little bit about when you first realized it was a problem and something that you needed to get involved with?
Verdibello: It was 1984, and my boss told me that he had a new assignment for me. ‘We’ve got this big job in Jersey City,’ he said. I said, ‘Jersey City, wait a minute! I live in Jersey City. What are you talking about?’ He says, ‘There’s an environmental project at the bottom of Duncan Avenue.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, I live at 47 Duncan Avenue. What the hell are you talking about?
We were having this conversation on the 90th floor of Two World Trade Center. He says, ‘Let’s go to the window, I’ll show it to you.’ So we go to a window, and he says, ‘You see that smoke over there?’ I said, ‘Oh, my God, you’ve got to be kidding me. My wife and I and a bunch of my neighbors have been demonstrating against that problem for something to be done for years.’
And he says, ‘Well, guess what, it’s your job. You’ve got to fix it.’ So, that was my introduction to PJP.
[Verdibello submitted his plan to clean up the site and waited for his boss’s response.]
At the beginning of April, 1985, [my boss] walks into my office with a big smile. And he says guess what? Everybody agrees that your recommended way to go is the best way. My recommended way was to excavate the whole thing. Wet it down with a special wetting agent to kill the deep fires that existed there for decades and then re-compact the whole thing; take away some bad stuff if we found it while we were doing the excavation and then cap the whole thing.
JCT: During the time that this landfill was on fire from the seventies, were you aware of people in and around it getting sick?
Verdibello: Oh, yeah. That’s exactly what drew the attention because this partial combustion gives off carbon monoxide. In fact, it was so bad that many times the traffic on the Pulaski Skyway had to be stopped during rush hour. And that’s why we had demonstrations — myself and my wife included — because when the wind shifted especially in summertime sleeping with your windows open, all of a sudden you’d wake up with your bedroom smelling of smoke like there was a fire around. We had to close the windows in the middle of the summer because this smoke was horrendous. It was very upsetting. So, when we started hearing the word ‘demonstrations,’ we participated.
There was also a big housing project right across from PJP, and those people had been living with those fumes for years, and they were having asthma problems and other respiratory issues.
JCT: Do you know how many years this had been going on for?
Verdibello: You know, the fires apparently were burning since the seventies, but PJP had been a problem for years according to my father-in-law, who was at the time in his high seventies. He remembers going there as a kid, scratching around for unburned pieces of coal to bring home to his mother to burn. And he remembers that even then it was a mess.
JCT: That’s in the early 1900s.
Verdibello: Yeah, that’s when it started. But the real problem with the fires from what I understand dates back to the seventies.
JCT: Was your contract with the federal government?
Verdibello: No, the contract was with the NJ DEP [Department of Environmental Protection]. They took the responsibility to do something because PJP had been put on the Superfund list, but it was like 13 hundredth down the list. And they said, Jesus, you know, by the time the federal government gets around to remediating PJP, people in Jersey City will be dead from inhalation of this smoke that was coming out. And so, the state decided to actually take it upon themselves to do something in the interim.
And then it was our luck that there was this engineer at DEP by the name of Marwan Sadat who took the initiative to do something.
If it hadn’t been for Marwan, probably the DEP would have done nothing, and we would have waited for God knows how many more years for them to get around to it.
JCT: What was actually burning?
Verdibello: These were deep pyrolytic fires because PJP for years had been used for illegally dumping all sorts of substances. Some of these things started chemical fires down deep.
[Pyrolysis is the thermal decomposition of materials at elevated temperatures in an inert atmosphere.]
JCT: So, they were just spontaneously combusting these chemicals?
Verdibello: Yeah, it was spontaneous combustion, if you will. And now you have to appreciate that in order for me to write the specs, I had to really learn a little bit about this site. But I was not allowed to go on site. It was too risky not only because of the fires and the gas but the risk of craters opening up and swallowing you since the fires were burning underneath. So, I was not allowed to go anywhere near it.
So, we did two things: Number one, I flew over the site several times in a helicopter to see where it was smoking the most, where the hot spots were. And number two, we did what is called a thermographic study, which is a thing that is done during the night in the dark. And we did it with these special sensors from the Pulaski Skyway. I have movies of that, and it gives you goosebumps when you see it because you really see the smoldering hot spots. So, with my observation from a helicopter and the thermographic study, I was able to establish where the really bad areas were.
So, the first step was to really squash down the fires before we got to the excavation or re-compaction. And for that I hired this famous company from Texas called Boots and Coots. They were the ones that were called to put out oil well fires not only in Texas but in Saudi Arabia and all over the world. But I told them that at PJP it had to be done in a very controlled fashion to not only put out the fires and really wet the mass of stuff that we were excavating but also to squash the odors and dust.
I got the green light to start preparing the engineering specifications so we could actually go out to contract with some subcontractors to do the actual remediation. The plan was to excavate the entire area, douse it with a wetting agent to kill the fires, and remove in the process anything we found that was highly objectionable like highly contaminated material, drums of material, etc., that I had been told by DEP that I may find once I started excavating. And then once we did all that we would re-compact the whole thing, the whole mass of soil and garbage, and then cap it with an impermeable cap, and leave it until such time as the EPA would get around to do the final remediation.
JCT: Do you know specifically what chemicals they were?
Verdibello: [Laughs] You name it, and we found it. When we actually started digging, we found all sorts of terrible stuff that had been dumped there: petrochemical residues, other chemical residues. We even found near the Broadway ramp, picric acid, which is actually an explosive. If you handle it roughly, it could explode. And that was only one of many, many things that we found in there. In fact, the Jersey City Fire Department tried many times to put out the fires by dousing the place with tons of water. And incredibly after a few days the fires would be back worse than before. They were scratching their heads trying to figure out what was going on over here.
What they didn’t realize is was that by hitting the surface of the landfill with these high-powered jets, they were stirring it up. They were thus allowing oxygen to get down to the deep fires. So, while the fire seemed to be squelched on the surface, only a few days later with the additional oxygen, the fires were back worse than ever. So, you knew something was wrong.
Parenthetically, since I lived in Jersey City, I had been breathing those fumes every time the wind changed direction.
JCT: What did you do with all of the chemicals and the drums?
Verdibello: This is another little side story. When I started writing the specification, DEP said to me, ‘Mario when you write this, include a little spec for removing the drums because you may find some drums with objectionable materials.’ So, for the purpose of engineering cost estimates, I’d assumed a thousand drums. And when they saw that they said, ‘Are you crazy? We told you a few drums.’ So, I said, ‘Listen guys, it’s only an engineering estimate. If it’s less, you’re ahead of the game, and it means we will spend less.’ Well, by the time we got through with the actual thing, I found over 5,000 drums that could actually be handled as drums and probably over 20,000 drums that could not be handled as drums because they were rusted and decayed.
JCT: Had, they just buried them?
Verdibello: Yeah, this was all illegal. So, we found at least 5,000 drums that were actually recognizable as drums. And those we picked up using a special drum handling machine. It was like a backhoe fitted with a grabber at the end instead of a bucket. And we grabbed those drums, and then we over-packed them in steel overpacks for safety. And then those drums were sent to licensed facilities. The other drums had deteriorated beyond human recognition. You could see parts of the drum the drum in
the contaminated material, so we scooped up many thousands of cubic yards of those highly contaminated materials, and those were actually sent to a licensed facility.
JCT: You capped it with probably some kind of a plastic?
Verdibello: Well, the cap is a composite consisting of three layers. You have initial drainage layer. Then on top of that, you have a compacted and impermeable clay layer. And then on top of that, you have a layer of topsoil to establish and maintain a vegetative cover. The topsoil had to be at least six to eight inches. I think the clay layer was two feet, and there was a drainage layer under it. But the key element was the compacted and impermeable clay layer.
JCT: How many years did the whole process take?
Verdibello: We started in October or early November 1985, and we finished the beginning of 1987, so about 18 months.
I remember the timing because I entered PJP in a contest for the outstanding environmental engineering achievement for 1987 sponsored by the Consulting Engineering Council of New Jersey, and we won.
When the federal government finally came around, they sent their own team to inspect. They found that what we had done was all that could have been done short of removing the whole million- and-a-half of cubic yards of soil there. So, they said that there was nothing else that they could do except continued monitoring.
JCT: Basically, you took that job off the federal government’s plate.
Verdibello: Essentially, yes. What we did as an interim remedial measure was above and beyond that scope. It was in fact as good a final measure as they would have done, so they didn’t do anything else.
JCT: By the way, you speak English like a college professor, but you have a slight accent, just a slight accent. Where were you born?
Verdibello: I was born in Italy. I came to the United States when I was 13 years old not speaking one word of English.
JCT: Did you come straight to Jersey City?
Verdibello: No, no. I lived in uptown Manhattan. I went to George Washington High School in Manhattan, and then I actually went to the City College of New York. This is where I got my degree in civil engineering.
JCT: Back in the day when City College was considered the Harvard of the poor?
Verdibello: Yeah, it was the called the Harvard of the proletariat. At that time City College was an incredible institution with one requirement: You had to have a 90 average from high school in order to be accepted. And you had to maintain a minimum of a C average to stay in. If you didn’t, you were expelled to make room for somebody who was more serious about studying than you were.
I married a girl who was born and probably will die in Jersey City. And so she dragged me to Jersey City at the time kicking and screaming, and now Jersey City is my town.
JCT: Fantastic. That’s such an amazing story.
Verdibello: That year-and-a-half was, you know, like the love of my life.
JCT: It’s your magnum opus as an environmental engineer?
Verdibello: Right. And it’s obviously very meaningful work. So, yeah. This was an incredible start of my environmental career, which lasts to this day.
Note: The final remedial work was done and an additional cap implemented in 2011 after the Healy Administration acquired the property. The site is expected to be officially delisted from the Superfund in the next year.