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For decades, an underground plume of toxic chemicals has lurked beneath 400 homes in the shadow of a now-shuttered munitions plant in suburban North Jersey.
In a quiet neighborhood in Pompton Lakes, N.J., a long-shuttered DuPont munitions plant left a legacy of contaminated groundwater that flows under some homes and can vaporize into basements.
The groundwater contaminated with cancer-causing solvents migrated from a century-old DuPont facility, nestled in the hills of Pompton Lakes, which produced ammunition that helped America win two world wars.
The solvents, used by DuPont to clean machinery, were dumped with wastewater for decades into four unlined lagoons near the edge of the company’s property. The toxic stew seeped down into the soil and migrated with the groundwater off the company’s site, eventually vaporizing up through the soil into the basements of nearby homes, posing a health risk to residents.
The solvents remain today — more than 30 years after they were discovered, and after countless public meetings, debate and study — beneath homes and backyards where DuPont workers and other residents raised families, played with children and planted vegetable gardens.
But now, a trove of government documents and emails obtained by The Record and NorthJersey.com reveal for the first time how extensively DuPont — the chemical giant that gave the world non-stick pans, stain-resistant carpets, nylon and other ubiquitous products — worked behind the scenes for more than three decades to keep secret and then downplay the extent of overall contamination from the site and the potential health risks they posed.
The company pushed back against regulators and chose not to tell residents that the cancer-causing chemicals could be vaporizing up from the groundwater into their homes, those documents reveal.
The plume of chemicals remains largely unaddressed, even as many residents blame DuPont for elevated levels of cancer and for other illnesses in their neighborhood.
“This was our home, and they did this, and we were lied to — lied to,” said Helen Martens, who moved to the Pompton Lakes neighborhood in 1977. “I lost all faith in the law, and in our town elected officials, and DuPont. I couldn’t believe they had done this to people.
“I love my home,” the 72-year-old said. “I just fear it.”
The Record reviewed hundreds of state and federal government emails and 100 boxes filled with government documents, obtained through open records requests, and conducted more than 70 interviews with residents, regulators, lawyers and environmental experts.
The investigation reveals that:
- DuPont told residents in 1997 that vapors from cancer-causing solvents weren’t entering homes – even though the company was aware of the potential for the solvents to vaporize and had not conducted tests beneath or inside any houses.
- DuPont and regulators discussed the threat of vapor intrusion for seven years – from 2001 to 2008 – without informing the public, documents show. That prevented unsuspecting residents from acting on their own to protect themselves, while potentially breathing cancer-causing vapors in their homes.
- Even as residents were kept in the dark, regulators pushed DuPont to test for vapors. The company was “adamantly opposed.” Internal government documents show why: DuPont didn’t want test results that could be used against the company by residents in an ongoing suit about other pollution from its Pompton Lakes facility.
Then, as part of the settlement of that suit, DuPont required residents to sign a release that kept them from suing DuPont if additional pollution was discovered.
Only after those releases were signed did DuPont test for vapors. But when residents were finally told about the danger in their homes and tried to sue, a judge said those who signed the releases were out of luck.
The Record and NorthJersey.com’s investigation also found:
- Documents dating to 1979 show the company’s behavior on the vapor intrusion issue was part of a larger, decades-long pattern in which DuPont obscured and then downplayed the extent of various toxic pollutants migrating off its property.
- Experts say it is hard to definitively link a particular polluted site to specific cases of cancer or other illness. Still, a door-to-door canvass by The Record of more than 50 households in the plume neighborhood identified many cases of various cancers that have been linked in studies to solvents that have been found in the plume, as well as other diseases, across multiple generations.
- A federal regulator told The Record she pushed to have the DuPont site added to the Superfund list so it could receive more federal money and contractor support, enjoy potentially quicker approvals for cleanup measures, and take into account public input. But state and local political leaders, including Bob Martin, the state’s top environmental official under then-Gov. Chris Christie, blocked those efforts.
“It always seemed to me that the company was trying to slow-walk the problem,” Judith Enck, former regional administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration, said in a recent interview. “They worked hard to pay as little money as possible and stretch it out over a long period of time, and sadly I think they are succeeding at that.”
The delays at times generated expressions of frustration. At one point in 2007, for instance, Frank Faranca, a state regulator, emailed DuPont about vapor testing beneath homes: “I find it increasingly hard to believe that it has taken this long to do the work. If you are truly trying to protect human health, it should not have taken this long.”
The Pompton Lakes residents affected by the plume of vaporizing solvents are not alone.
In New Jersey and across the nation, vapor intrusion is a growing concern, and not only for newer contaminated sites that are just starting to be cleaned. Over the past decade, for instance, New York’s environmental agency has revisited 147 legacy sites that had already been considered cleaned up to check for vapor intrusion.
DuPont — which had a gross profit in 2016 of more than $10 billion — has spent money in Pompton Lakes over several decades to address some aspects of its legacy of pollution.
A $50 million cleanup of Pompton Lake is underway to remove lead and mercury that washed into the lake sediment. DuPont also spent $70 million in the early 1990s to remove and replace soil tainted with lead and mercury from the backyards of homes that lined Acid Brook, a stream that runs through the DuPont property and through the adjacent neighborhood before it empties into Pompton Lake.
DuPont spent nearly $40 million to settle lawsuits in connection with the mercury and lead contamination over the years, and offered a “groundwater benefits program” — payouts of $5,000 each to residents who promised not to sue the company.
But far less has been done to address the source of the vapor intrusion, which affects a much greater area.
The company built a $1.2 million pump-and-treat system to prevent more chemicals from leaving its property. And since 2008, DuPont has paid to install and cover the operating costs of venting systems intended to remove the harmful vapors from homes.
Still, the underground plume of chemicals remains beneath 400 homes. One pilot study to test a method to treat the chemicals failed. A second controversial pilot study awaits state approval. There is no plan to buy out residents who have seen their property values plummet.
DuPont declined to discuss its former operations in Pompton Lakes, referring all questions to Chemours, a spinoff it created in 2015. Chemours inherited about 170 contaminated DuPont sites nationwide, including the 600-acre Pompton Lakes site in Passaic County.
Chemours calls the Pompton Lakes cleanup challenging and said its goals ultimately mesh with those of residents.
“The remediation of a complex site like Pompton Lakes is a lengthy and complicated process,” Chemours spokeswoman Robin Ollis Stemple said by email.
“While we all wish that this could be done more quickly, Chemours is committed to doing the work in a way that is thorough, science-based, protective of people and the environment and in accordance with all guidance” provided by regulators.
“While this takes time, we believe this is the right approach for the Pompton Lakes community,” she added. “Ultimately, Chemours and the community have the same goal: to complete protective remediation and return the site to productive use.”
But many wary residents — some of whom suffer from an array of illnesses — say they have been betrayed for decades by DuPont and let down by regulators and elected officials. They say they have no confidence the plume will be addressed. Some said they feel trapped, and want nothing more than to escape the neighborhood they once loved.
“I wind up with Stage 4 kidney failure,” said longtime resident Ron Merlino. “Guess what,” he said. “Buy our homes. Get us out of here. They should have got us out of here as soon as they knew we were getting poisoned in our own homes.
“It’s time to go,” Merlino added. “I can’t wait to get out.”
Today, more than three decades after regulators became aware toxic chemicals were migrating off the DuPont site, the plume of contamination remains unaddressed beneath more than 400 homes, making it one of the country’s larger vapor intrusion sites.
Here’s how that happened.
A brief history of DuPont’s plant operation since 1902, environmental studies conducted, and documented interactions with state and federal government agencies.
Paul Wood, Jr./NorthJersey.com
Because it plays such an ominous role in their lives, some Pompton Lakes residents refer to the contaminated groundwater beneath their homes simply as “The Plume.”
Many residents insist the plume of solvents has caused dozens of cases of brain, cervical, kidney and other cancers, as well as other illnesses.
Their argument was bolstered by a 2009 state health study that showed kidney cancer rates among women in the neighborhood were elevated and that non-Hodgkin lymphoma among men was elevated compared with the state average. New Jersey’s rate of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in men is among the highest in the country.
The Health Department said in its 2009 study that while it could not definitively link the elevated cancer rates to solvents in the plume, “the contaminants cannot be ruled out as a potential cause.”
When asked to comment on the array of illnesses among residents living above the plume, Chemours said in an email, “It is an unfortunate fact that illnesses, including cancer, occur in all communities and neighborhoods in the state and the country.”
Residents say the plume has pushed down property values and prevented people from cashing in on life savings tied up in their homes.
The state first concluded solvents were migrating off the DuPont site and under homes as early as 1984, documents show. In 1988 the state and DuPont signed an agreement that required DuPont to drill monitoring wells to determine the extent of the plume — and to clean the contaminated groundwater.
The state Department of Environmental Protection called cleaning the plume a priority. Private wells in the neighborhood were the initial concern. Most were used to water lawns and fill swimming pools. But a few provided drinking water.
Richard Marsh, a former DuPont employee and longtime resident, recalled a neighbor who had multiple dogs die from tumors.
“He fed them well water,” Marsh said. “My dogs never died of tumors. We used municipal water.”
What are TCE and PCE solvents, and how can they affect a person’s longterm health?
The solvents in the plume — TCE and PCE — belong to a group of chemicals called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which easily evaporate in the air. Private wells in the neighborhood, tested in 1985 and 1986, had volatile organic compounds as high as 5,592 parts per billion. One well had 408 parts per billion of PCE and 167 parts per billion of TCE.
The state drinking water limit for either of those solvents is 1 part per billion — the equivalent of one drop of solvent in an Olympic-size swimming pool — illustrating their potency.
Given the health concern, DuPont had the wells disconnected and the homes hooked up to municipal water.
Not until 2001 — 17 years after the plume was identified — did regulators first mention in private exchanges with DuPont about the potential for the plume to be a health threat to residents through toxic vapors seeping into homes.
Vapor intrusion occurs when contaminants in the groundwater turn to vapor, move up through tiny spaces in the soil and enter basements through cracks in foundations or openings for utility lines.
Scientists have known about the threat for decades.
Tests for toxic vapors were conducted at the infamous Love Canal in upstate New York in the mid-1980s, and a few years later, vapor intrusion tests were conducted in residential areas of Rochester, New York, near a contaminated Kodak facility.
In the early 1990s, the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued some guidance on dealing with vapor intrusion at Superfund sites.
New Jersey was among the first states to focus on it. The state issued guidance in 1999 to test indoor air. The science was evolving rapidly, said John Boyer, a vapor intrusion expert with the state. Over the next few years the EPA and state Department of Environmental Protection put out new guidance on how to handle vapor intrusion, reflecting the evolving science.
DuPont was aware of the potential for the solvents in the Pompton Lakes plume to vaporize into homes as early as 1997, documents show. But they told residents it wasn’t happening, even though they had not tested the air in homes, or the soil underneath.
Here is an excerpt from a letter DuPont sent residents in September 1997:
“… in addition to monitoring the groundwater plume, DuPont has also investigated the potential for vapor emissions to occur from the plume. (M)easurements … provide no indication of vapor migration.”
But the measurements weren’t taken under or inside people’s homes. They were conducted in an old dry well on DuPont’s former property.
“As far as the assumptions they were making, the science really wasn’t there,” said Boyer, the state vapor intrusion expert. “There was no basis for us to disagree, I guess, at that point. But as time went on, the science got better, and as we moved forward we started recognizing this was more of a problem than we may have anticipated.”
Chemours, in an email to The Record, said the best environmental investigation practice requires sampling “where concentrations are likely to be highest,” and the old well site was in the direct path of the groundwater flowing from the DuPont site “where contamination would be expected to be highest.”
Chemours also said “the science of understanding vapor intrusion continued to evolve after 1997.” It noted that DuPont conducted tests in the plume neighborhood from 2003 to 2005, though not under or inside homes.
“The data collected up to that point indicated that there was no vapor intrusion pathway,” Chemours said.
Though residents would be told nothing about vapor intrusion until 2008 — more than a decade after DuPont’s 1997 letter — internal DEP and EPA emails and documents show that as early as March 2001 the regulators worried that vapors could be a health risk.
It took seven years for residents to be alerted.
This short animation demonstrates how chemical pollution in groundwater can vaporize into the basements of homes. From NorthJersey.com’s “Toxic Secrets” investigation of DuPont’s legacy of contamination in Pompton Lakes, N.J.
Because the state at the time had little regulatory power on vapor intrusion, they relied on the federal EPA’s push.
“We did not have the regulatory gun in a holster,” said DEP spokesman Larry Hajna.
At a meeting in March 2001, regulators told DuPont that vapor intrusion “must be addressed.”
And an EPA document a few months later noted that because the solvents were detected in elevated levels in monitoring wells in the neighborhood, “indoor air may be of concern at off-site locations in the residential community.”
The issue should be investigated, the report said.
More than a year later, in March 2003, DuPont and the regulators held a private meeting, documents show. The regulators underscored that “there are potential impacts of the plume on people in the residential houses … through indoor air.”
But that message was not conveyed to the residents.
“The public has a right to know about a problem,” Enck, the former EPA regional administrator, said in a recent interview.
“I think it’s crucial for government regulatory agencies but also for big companies to share information early,” said Enck, who left the EPA in January 2017 after seven years. “Unfortunately that didn’t happen here.”
Instead, DuPont made it clear to the agencies that the company opposed sampling homes in the plume. In April 2003, an EPA official noted in an internal email: “DuPont to fight if indoor air sampling required.”
DuPont sent a report a few months later saying there was no vapor intrusion — a report that relied on the same 1996 test of the dry well on DuPont’s former property.
The state disagreed.
An agency memo noted that samples from monitoring wells in the plume neighborhood found elevated levels of PCE and TCE, which indicated the need to test for vapor intrusion. The 2003 memo also questioned DuPont’s assumptions.
It noted that other wells had not been tested since 1995, so “it is questionable whether one can conclude … that the concentration levels in the off-site plume are decreasing.”
“If you know there’s contamination and it’s inexpensive and easy to mitigate, then do it,” said Lenny Siegel, executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, which advocates for victims of environmental pollution.
“If you can install mitigation systems, just do it,” he said. “If installed properly they are effective.”
Chemours defended DuPont’s decision not to alert residents about the potential for vapor intrusion until 2008.
“In 1997, the science of vapor transport from groundwater … (was) still developing,” Chemours wrote. “We understand that DuPont followed relevant, applicable guidance as it was developed by regulatory agencies over time, and that DuPont communicated with residents appropriately.”
That explanation does not sit well with some plume residents.
“The safest thing obviously is to move the people out,” said longtime resident Cheryl Rubino. “They should not be exposed to the contamination. But for those who don’t want to go — make them whole. It’s not fair what’s happened to these people. Their homes, their investments, their life savings are in their house. They will always need to disclose the contamination.
“Personally, I don’t feel it’s going to get cleaned up,” Rubino said. “I really don’t. It’s too difficult and too expensive. And there’s going to be a very difficult and long haul, and it will not happen before my mother dies, and it will not happen before I die.”
DuPont adamantly opposed testing for cancer-causing vapors beneath the Pompton Lakes neighborhood because it didn’t want the test results to become a cudgel the public could use against the chemical giant in court, documents and emails reviewed by The Record and NorthJersey.com show.
And as DuPont pushed back against regulators, Pompton Lakes residents, unaware of the vapors potentially seeping into their homes, continued to use their basements to do laundry, check their computer email, play video games — all while potentially breathing in the dangerous vapors.
During that seven-year period when the public was kept in the dark about the potential danger lurking beneath their homes, not only did DuPont resist regulators who had pressed for vapor tests — at times the regulators’ own bungling exacerbated the delays, according to dozens of internal emails and government documents obtained by The Record and NorthJersey.com.
Documents show that DuPont was unhappy with the regulators from the state and the federal EPA for pushing to have vapor tests conducted.
In an August 2003 email to officials at the EPA’s Region 2, which covers New Jersey, DuPont complained that “generally we feel that Region II wants more documentation and investigations tha(n) we have experienced with other Regions.”
A month later, DuPont and the regulators met to discuss ways to test for vapor intrusion in the plume. An internal EPA memo, uncovered by The Record and NorthJersey.com through a public records request, summarized the meeting.
It noted that if the geology of the site made it impossible to use generic testing methods, DuPont would need to conduct air sampling beneath and inside plume homes, “which DuPont has adamantly opposed. They are involved in several citizen suits and they are concerned that such an assessment could be detrimental to the cases.”
In other words, DuPont told environmental officials that if the tests showed elevated levels of solvent vapors, that could be used against them in ongoing lawsuits related to other contaminants that had left DuPont’s property.
One of those suits had been filed on behalf of Pompton Lakes residents in 1998.
The case, Agnes v. DuPont, focused on health impacts and falling home values allegedly caused by mercury and lead that had washed off the DuPont site and into backyards, brought there by Acid Brook. The case also looked at solvents that contaminated private wells.
But it didn’t focus on vapor intrusion, since the public had not yet been told it was a concern.
When DuPont settled the Agnes case, the public remained uninformed about the danger of vapor intrusion.
The settlement provided most residents $950, a third of which went to their lawyers. In exchange, DuPont required residents to sign a release in which they relinquished their right to sue DuPont in the future over any illness other than cancer related to contamination from DuPont’s Pompton Lakes site.
When they signed those releases, residents were still in the dark about the ongoing talks between regulators and DuPont about vapor intrusion.
After DuPont told the public in 2008 that tests indicated vapor intrusion was occurring, residents filed another suit, this time focused on vapor intrusion.
But U.S. District Judge Dennis M. Cavanaugh ruled that 113 of the residents had no standing to sue DuPont because they had signed the 2004 releases — even though they knew nothing about vapor intrusion at the time.
“We were basically told after the fact — after giving them amnesty, if you will, that, oh, by the way — there is contaminated groundwater under your home, there are gases that are potentially seeping through the cracks in your basement, and they are carcinogenic,” recalled longtime resident Jefferson LaSala.
DuPont declined to comment on any aspects of its Pompton Lakes operations for this series. Chemours, a spinoff company that inherited responsibility for 170 of DuPont’s contaminated sites across the country, including Pompton Lakes, told The Record in an email that “there was no effort” by DuPont “to delay testing” in the plume because of the lawsuits.
Delays abounded, however, lasting years. Emails show that some delays were caused by DuPont, and some by regulators.
Meanwhile, residents continued to use their basements, unaware they could be breathing cancer-causing vapors.
“I worked on vapor intrusion in upstate New York 20 years ago — it’s not brand new,” Enck, the former EPA regional administrator overseeing New Jersey during the Obama administration, told The Record. “One of the most basic things is you do indoor air samples to decide if there is a problem and need a widespread solution.”
At the same time, the state DEP had only a handful of vapor intrusion cases by 2005. “So there was no precedent, no standard approach,” recalled John Boyer, the DEP’s vapor intrusion expert. “We sort of broke ground when it came to the DuPont case in how to go about doing things.
“We were sort of feeling our way through this process,” Boyer said.
And DuPont didn’t help.
The company submitted multiple reports over several years using screening levels and other factors the regulators had already rejected as lax or inappropriate, stalling the agencies in the process.
“History shows that in the absence of an active community and regulators, most polluters will drag their feet,” said Lenny Siegel, executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, which advocates for victims of environmental pollution. “They will try to do study after study showing the contamination isn’t as bad as everyone thought. They are responsible to their shareholders.”
In their 2010 book “The Polluters,” authors Benjamin Ross and Steven Amter, scientists who ran an environmental consulting firm, wrote that “one of the industry’s common tactics can be summed up as ‘spill, study, and stall.’ When outside pressure to do something about pollution became strong, a study of the problem would be launched as an alternative to expensive action.”
Companies such as DuPont “know how to tie regulatory agencies in knots,” she said. “They spend money on scientists who just question everything an agency wants to do.”
While the DEP and EPA kept prodding DuPont to test for vapor intrusion in Pompton Lakes, at times the regulators themselves dropped the ball, inadvertently exacerbating DuPont’s delay, and causing residents to be victims of bureaucratic bungling.
For instance, early in 2004 DuPont sent an email to the DEP asking it to approve some sampling procedures. When the EPA asked three months later for the test samples, DuPont said it hadn’t conducted the tests because it never heard back from the state.
“We prefer feedback before we proceed,” DuPont wrote.
A DEP official countered that he never received DuPont’s correspondence, and besides, he was overwhelmed with work. “I have to keep switching between my other 17 hazardous waste sites, which leaves me little time to devote to any specific project,” he wrote. “If any one project becomes a high priority, that gets 100% of my attention, and everything else gets dropped.”
Later that day, he acknowledged that he found DuPont’s earlier email.
“Since my desk is buried beneath a Solid Waste landfill, I could not determine if I got the document,” he wrote, somewhat sarcastically.
The new sampling was scheduled for Aug. 9.
On Sept. 14, the EPA followed up, asking for results.
On Dec. 22, the EPA asked again for the results.
More than a week later, DuPont replied: “We had some problems with the last set of samples.”
When samples were taken at seven homes in early 2008, results showed elevated levels of PCE in all seven, and elevated TCE in six.
A hydrogeologist hired as an expert for resident plaintiffs in a 2010 court case said that, since the solvents had likely been in the groundwater since the 1940s, “vapor intrusion must have also occurred in the neighborhood for decades.”
After the 2008 test results, DuPont installed vapor intrusion systems on more than 330 homes to suck the vapors out from beneath the foundations and release them into the outside air to dissipate. In 2014, tests at Lakeside Middle School, adjacent to the plume, did not detect toxic vapors above state safety standards.
However, the source of those vapors — the plume of contamination in the soil — is still there, unaddressed. Chemours has proposed a new pilot study to flush water into the ground to create a barrier between the vapors and the homes, but residents worry it will raise the water table and flood their basements with contamination.
“We’re dealing with a very affluent company that knows science,” said Enck, the former EPA regional administrator. “They make billions of dollars every year, and someone inside the company has to take a very close look at the toxic legacy here and decide to do something differently.
“I think we need a new set of experts inside the company addressing this, because the old way is not working,” Enck said.
She urged New Jersey’s new governor, Phil Murphy, to make the site a priority. “I think the community members are raising very legitimate concerns,” Enck said.
The test results showing vapor intrusion in Pompton Lakes came nearly eight years after regulators first started raising concerns to DuPont about the potential for vapor intrusion in the neighborhood.
They arrived 11 years after DuPont told residents vapor intrusion was not occurring in the plume.
And it was nearly 25 years after state environmental officials first suspected solvents were migrating off the DuPont site and under adjacent homes.
When DuPont told Pompton Lakes residents in June 2008 that vapor intrusion could be occurring in their homes, the company said it would pay to install vapor mitigation units on each home in the plume.
The systems work by sucking the toxic vapors out from under a home and sending them up through a pipe, which releases them to the outside air, allowing them to dissipate.
The vapors came from the cancer-causing solvents PCE and TCE, which had contaminated a plume of groundwater beneath about 400 homes. The solvents had migrated off DuPont’s former munitions facility nearby, and had moved their way up through the soil and into some basements.
During tests to determine the extent of vapor intrusion in the neighborhood, two-thirds of samples taken beneath homes showed that PCE levels exceeded the state standard of 16 parts per billion. Levels were as high as 6,800.
Similarly, a third of samples tested high for TCE. The state standard was 11 parts per billion. Readings were as high as 1,200.
As for indoor air results, elevated levels of PCE were in 29 percent of the samples. The state standard was 1 part per billion, and readings were as high as 68.
In its 2010 report on the test results, DuPont said this about providing the vapor mitigation systems: “DuPont believes that proactively offering systems to those residents located above the groundwater plume is an appropriate measure while efforts continue to assess potential remedial technologies for implementation in the offsite groundwater plume.”
The company could have “proactively” provided those systems eight years earlier, when regulators first raised concerns about the potential for vapor intrusion.
“Companies are always free to proactively take steps to protect public health when they have contaminated communities,” former EPA regional administrator Judith Enck said in a recent interview.
In December 2009, a state Health Department study found that women living in the plume had elevated rates of kidney cancer and men had elevated rates of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The Health Department said it could not definitively link the elevated cancer rates to the solvents in the plume — but “the contaminants cannot be ruled out as a potential cause.”
By that time, homeowners had grown so distrustful of DuPont that many refused to let the company’s contractor into their homes to install the vapor mitigation systems. In some cases, their lack of faith was warranted.
Early in 2009, the Pompton Lakes building inspector failed 22 of the venting systems because the top of the outdoor pipe was installed too close to a window or chimney. Eventually, regulators allowed homeowners to choose their own state-approved contractors to install the systems. More than 330 homes in the plume neighborhood now have vapor mitigation systems.
But today, nearly 30 years after DuPont signed an agreement with New Jersey to clean up the groundwater plume — which is the source of those cancer-causing vapors — the land beneath the homes remains contaminated.
Blasting caps and explosive powder have played a major role in the history of Pompton Lakes and neighboring Wanaque for more than a century.
Even before DuPont arrived on the scene, several smaller companies made explosive powder in those towns as far back as the 1880s.
The first plant on the Wanaque portion of the future DuPont site was built in 1886 by H. Julius Smith, who had patented a spark-fired blasting cap filled with mercury fulminate.
In 1894, the American Smokeless Powder Co. took over production on the property. Its smokeless powder was a vast strategic improvement for soldiers over black powder, which had produced smoke that obscured enemy targets during battle and also gave away the location of the soldiers doing the shooting.
The Haskell Plant, as it was known, was purchased in 1898 by Laflin Rand, which expanded the site. The factory was so important that American troops were stationed to guard it during the Spanish-American War.
DuPont acquired control of Laflin Rand in 1902, and set up its DuPont Electric Exploder Company, which included blasting cap and powder production facilities on the west side of Lake Inez along the Wanaque River. The facility would play a key production role in World War I.
In 1908, DuPont opened the DuPont Cap Works in the Acid Brook Valley.
Initially the company made mercury fulminate as a powder to use in its blasting caps, then later switched to lead azide.
Troops were stationed around the facility during World War I to guard against any potential sabotage by foreign agents.
With good reason.
An incident in January 1917 provided a stark reminder of the danger posed by the materials on the site. Some 400,000 pounds of smokeless powder ignited, causing explosions that could be felt as far away as Massachusetts. Houses shook in Brooklyn, windows shattered in Westchester County, and telephone and telegraph service throughout North Jersey was disrupted, according to a New York Times story at the time of the disaster: “At the Pompton Lakes Hotel the floors were forced up and the guests ran to the street in terror, many not fully dressed.”
DuPont built a series of homes just south of its plant around World War I to house employees. The neighborhood became known as DuPont Village.
In 1926, DuPont shuttered its Wanaque facility and consolidated operations to the southeast, in Pompton Lakes.
As the nation ramped up for World War II, so did DuPont’s hiring at its Pompton Lakes site. Employment peaked during the war at about 7,500, providing steady, well-paying jobs for many in the area.
In fact, DuPont provided more than jobs — it provided a way of life, a sense of community, even recreational opportunities such as athletic teams.
In 1943, amid World War II, operations and staff at the Pompton Lakes site had grown so large that DuPont introduced a monthly newsletter, aptly named “The Exploder.”
The first issue noted that it was created “to unite the thousands of workers at the plant in a spirit of harmony, friendliness and above all, grim determination to keep at its peak the production for which we have taken solemn obligation.”
The newsletter provided personal updates on workers in various parts of the sprawling facility, including the “Twisting Line,” “Inspecting Line” and “Coiling Line.”
That first issue also warned against absenteeism.
“They’re beginning to use some pretty sharp words, including ‘deserter’ for those who are absent without excuse from war plants,” it read. “The way to get to work every day is to bear constantly in mind that somewhere out in the Pacific or in Africa, some teenage son or somebody’s husband may reach out desperately for ammunition to protect himself against the fiendish enemy and find that there isn’t any…production was short that day you stayed out to get your hair set.”
“The Exploder” even had New Yorker-style cartoons, including one in which a female employee holds out a cup to a woman on another assembly line and says, “Can you lend me a cup of Thermite — I just need a little to finish up a batch of incendiaries!”
After World War II, DuPont operations in Pompton Lakes slowly declined, until the plant closed in 1994.
Remnants of structures — primarily concrete footings, stone and concrete foundations and masonry walls — remain on the 600-acre property, along with Cannonball Road, which had served as the facility’s spine.
- Founded in 1802 as a gunpowder mill on the Brandywine River in Delaware by chemist and industrialist E. I. du Pont, who had fled the violence of the French Revolution with his family in 1799.
- Headquartered in Wilmington, Delaware.
- Played key role in making blasting caps and other ammunition at its Pompton Lakes facility for the U.S. military during both world wars.
- Played a major role in the Manhattan Project, which ultimately developed nuclear weapons for the United States during World War II.
- Invented Nylon, Lucite, Dacron, Mylar, Kevlar, Tyvek, Lycra, Teflon, Corian, Stainmaster carpets, and other now-ubiquitous products.
- In 2015 spun off a separate company, Chemours, which inherited responsibility for cleanup of more than 170 of DuPont’s contaminated sites, including Pompton Lakes.
- Had $10 billion in net profit in 2016.
- In September 2017 completed a $130 billion merger with Dow, another chemical industry giant, to become DowDuPont. DowDuPont is expected to break into three independent, publicly traded companies focused on agriculture, materials science and specialty products.
About the Project
James M. O’Neill joined The Record in 2008 and has covered environmental issues since then. He previously worked in the Providence Journal’s Washington bureau, covered higher education at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and had stints at the Dallas Morning News and Bloomberg News.
Scott Fallon has been a member of The Record’s environment team for 10 years, focusing on New Jersey’s legacy of industrial pollution and how it still impacts residents. He previously worked at The Philadelphia Inquirer and has written for Newsday and the New York Daily News.
Chris Pedota is a multimedia producer at The Record, where he has been since 2000. He has covered politics, news and sports including the events of 9/11, Operation Desert Shield as well as the Super Bowl and World Series.
Michael V. Pettigano joined The Record in 2012 and is currently digital developer and video producer for NorthJersey.com. His digital presentations include the Bridgegate scandal, The Record’s award-winning heroin coverage, Superstorm Sandy, and presidential, state and local elections.
Daniel Sforza is the investigative editor at The Record and has been with the company since 1994. His previous work includes overseeing the coverage of the Bridgegate scandal, The Record’s Pulitzer-finalist heroin coverage, and our investigative coverage of NJ Transit. Over the previous year, he has led investigative coverage of charter schools in New Jersey, the mob and stories about a cold-case murder that resulted in arrests.
Susan Lupow is a digital producer and editor for The Record and NorthJersey.com who has a particular interest in environmental issues. She has worked for The Record since 1985.
Contributing Staff Steve Auchard, Sean Oates, Paul Wood, Jr.