Property

Toxic compounds have seeped into the man’s property. The cleanup could cost him everything, he says.

Carmine Olivieri has spent much of his working life earning a living on the two plots he bought 20 years ago on West Street in Bloomfield.

Up front is the two-family home at 57 West Street that he seized in a foreclosure sale and then repaired so he could rent it out. In the back is the old garage where he runs his auto detailing business, Classic Car. The rest of the property he rents out to ambulances and trucks for parking.

“This place is my life and my livelihood,” Olivieri said from his garage one recent afternoon, where a 1959 Cadillac convertible hung from an elevator above a sporty orange-red Alfa Romeo. “And I have responsibilities; one child went to college next year and another just behind.

But there’s something underground in Olivieri’s garage that has turned his life upside down and is now threatening to take away his livelihood: toxic compounds in the soil that have migrated onto his property from the site of the old factory. Bloomfield gas station, just down the street.

“I feel like I’m living a nightmare that I never wake up from,” Olivieri said. “Some days I wake up and look in the mirror and I’m like, ‘this is the day things are going to change’.”

Twenty years ago, Olivieri took a risk and bought the two lots on West Street, in a former industrial district a stone’s throw from the Garden State Parkway. His nightmare began a year later, when a stranger came up the driveway while he was working on a car and broke the news that would change his life.

The stranger was a project manager for PSE&G working on the environmental cleanup of Bloomfield Gas Works, a natural gas manufacturing plant that burned coal to make fuel for gas lamps and heating systems in the late 1990s. 1800 and early 20th century. PSE&G cleaned the gasworks property, but wanted to see if the underground soil contamination had migrated onto Olivieri’s property.

PSE&G wanted permission to come to Olivieri’s property to perform test drilling in the ground. Under New Jersey’s Brownfield and Site Contamination and Remediation Act, PSE&G was the “responsible party” for the cleanup, and Olivieri was required to provide “reasonable access” to his property.

Wary of what they might find, Olivieri left the PSE&G environmental team on the property to do what he thought were some test drilling. Twenty years later, PSE&G continues to drill holes on the property, digging more than 20 feet below the surface to map the depth and width of the contamination.

Olivieri estimates that in 20 years he has spent more than $100,000 on an environmental consultant to monitor soil testing and on lawyers and consultants he has hired to defend his property rights. But he’s afraid that when the cleanup finally begins, it will cost him everything he has: his business, the house he rents, and the parking spaces he rents.

“I was never opposed to them coming onto the property to do the cleaning,” Olivieri said. “I just want them to make me whole.”

Carmine Olivieri showing one of the many test boreholes that PSE&G has drilled outside his garage looking for ground contamination.

New Jersey’s Brownfields and Contaminated Sites Remediation Act allows property owners to be compensated for “costs associated with any disruption of operations on the property,” but the law does not specify what costs. The law leaves it up to landlords and the party responsible for the cleanup to develop a trespass agreement before the cleanup begins. Any litigation is settled in Superior Court.

Although Olivieri is fighting his own battle alone, he is not alone. In 2022, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection counted 14,461 contaminated sites statewide — toxic hotspots that range in size from underground storage tanks buried under single-family homes and gas stations. service to huge abandoned industrial areas commonly referred to as brownfields.

Although the DEP is responsible for ensuring that cleanups are carried out, it is not involved in the negotiation of right of access agreements.

“The Brownfields and Contaminated Sites Remediation Act requires the responsible party to have access to the neighboring party to perform the remediation,” said DEP spokesperson Caryn Shinske. “To this end, the DEP encourages landowners to work together and provide or obtain access to off-site locations for the purpose of carrying out remediation work where contamination has potentially impacted locations. Offsite. DEP does not become involved in the access agreement, including indemnification issues or the terms of an easement between the responsible party and neighboring landowners.

Olivieri and PSE&G have been exchanging letters for years over access, but have failed to reach an agreement. In February, the utility sued Olivieri, and three months later a Superior Court judge granted PSE&G access to perform more testing and develop a final remediation plan. Once that plan is in place, it will be up to Olivieri, his attorney, and PSE&G to craft a right-of-entry agreement that Olivieri says will make it or break it.

“I don’t want to prevent them from cleaning up their contamination,” Olivieri said. “But cleaning them up shouldn’t come at the cost of my livelihood.”

55-57 West Street, Bloomfield

Both lots at 55 and 57 West Street.

The PSE&G cleanup of Bloomfield Gas Works is one of 36 cleanup projects the utility is responsible for statewide. According to PSE&G, the utility has completed cleanup of 24 of its manufactured gas plant sites.

PSE&G would not comment on details of Olivieri’s case, but through a spokeswoman said the utility would seek to “minimize” business disruption.

“As this matter is in litigation, we cannot comment on its details, however, PSE&G is assessing each site on a case-by-case basis and working with the owners to minimize disruption to the owner and businesses located on the property,” said PSE&G spokesperson Lauren Ugorji.

“My daughter was two when it all started,” Olivieri said. “Now she’s heading to college.”

Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.

Richard Cowen can be reached at [email protected].