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Residents Push for Superfund Status at Pompton Lakes

Locals are getting some high-profile help in their attempts to designate the decades-old cleanup as a federal Superfund site.

In a community where soil, water, and air pollution from the old munitions plant was identified in the 1980s and threatens a residential area, some residents believe the pace of decontamination has been painfully slow. They believe designation as a Superfund site would spur efforts by state and federal agencies and the company.

"They've been saying that they're cleaning this up for a couple of decades now," said Lois Gibbs, executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. "Superfund [status] would establish timelines for action."

Nationally known as a citizen activist since she exposed toxic contamination in her own neighborhood in Niagara Falls -- Love Canal -- Gibbs will add her voice to the Citizens for a Clean Pompton Lakes at a rally 4 p.m. Thursday, January 5.

The rally on the dredging plan will be held at the Lakeside Park Pavilion, down Lakeside Avenue from the high school, where officials from the federal Environmental Protection Agency will conduct a 7 p.m. hearing on DuPont's proposal to dredge mercury, lead, and other contaminants from the lake.

The EPA became involved in the site cleanup about a year ago, joining the state Department of Environmental Protection, which had been in charge up until then. The two agencies cooperate closely, but the EPA is taking the lead on the Pompton Lakes project.

The organizer of the local group, Lisa Riggiola, said she is cautiously optimistic that the EPA will reverse its long-standing decision not to bring the plant, nearby waters, and a residential neighborhood, under the Superfund umbrella.

"The commitment should be 'clean it up,'" Riggiola said. "I know it's going to take a lot of money, but I believe it can be done. And if for some reason they think it can't be done, tell us that. We've waited long enough."

There is an understandable urgency to some local residents call for Superfund status. In December 2009, the state Department of Health and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry suggested that there was a "cluster" of cancers in the scenic community. In a follow-up in April 2011, the agencies said data showed local women had a hospitalization rate for cancerous tumors that is 38 percent higher than the state average.

DuPont, according to company spokesman Bob Nelson, is "committed to cleaning up this site and to following the process whatever it is determined to be."

The EPA, for its part, is "going to listen very carefully to what the community has to say at the rally and the hearing," said EPA spokeswoman Bonnie Bellow.

But a year ago, the EPA reiterated its decision against the Superfund designation, with some officials suggesting that it might complicate dealings with DuPont. In the 1980s, agency officials chose not to designate the site because the plant was still operating.

It closed in 1994, and over the years, the company has paid for studies and remediation efforts such as soil removal. The new plan to dredge a 26-acre area of the Acid Brook delta at the lake will cost the company $20 million, and can begin this year if approved, according to Nelson.

The company worked for years with the state Department of Environmental Protection on studies and remediation of the effects of more than a century of munitions manufacturing. Mercury, lead, and cancer-causing solvents have been identified -- and in some places removed -- from soil and water, but noxious vapors also have penetrated homes.

Over the past year, the EPA and the DEP have made some progress on that front, getting more residents to accept "vapor intrusion systems" in basements effected by toxic fumes rising from the soil, noted Bellow.

"Of 439 homes that are affected, systems have been installed in 255 and there are 54 more in progress," Bellow said.

But that progress may be too little to late for some residents.

"Our state environmental protection is falling apart," said Dana Patterson of the Edison Wetlands Association, a partner in CCPL. "They have been losing resources, they have been losing staff," giving voice to the dissatisfaction that some residents feel.

"Their process has been for DuPont to clean this up for nearly 30 years, without really doing much," she said.

Some in town remain skeptical of the efforts, especially at a time when the poor economy has made it difficult for residents to even refinance mortgages on homes they have little chance of selling.

"People have been told they don't have enough equity in their homes, even when they owe only $100,000 to $150,000," Riggiola said.

The lack of enthusiasm among environmental officials for the Superfund designation reflects concerns about the long-term costs of relocation, if people are stuck with property that cannot be fully cleaned of contamination, she said.

That sounds familiar to Gibbs, who started by organizing her Love Canal neighbors but encountered some reluctance from public officials.

"New York State said like, 'Holy Moly, what are we going to do with 900 families? We don't have money to pay for that,'" she said.

More than three decades later, other communities around the country still face the same circumstances, and need to push officials to act, Gibbs said.

Riggiola acknowledged that Pompton Lakes has not spoken with one voice over the years. Some locals see the Superfund process as a "stigma," and hold out hope that DuPont might redevelop or sell the plant site for a golf course, hotel, or conference center. That is one reason to bring in Gibbs, with her years of similar experience, she said.

"I think that it was true at the start of Superfund, that it was viewed as a stigma, but not anymore," Gibbs said.

Now, a key feature is a certificate issued when the EPA deems a clean-up to have been completed to the required standard for whatever is planned next for a site, including residential or commercial re-use, she said.

"Before, without this little piece of paper, a builder was responsible if more contamination was found," Gibbs said. "One thing corporations are worried about is the issue of future liability, and the certificates resolve that."

During three decades reporting in New Jersey, Joe Tyrrell has covered everything from Avon to Zarephath, with a particular emphasis on politics and government, the environment and agriculture. He founded the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, which unites civic groups, citizens and journalists to promote transparency and ethics.

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