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EPA Pledges Accelerated Cleanup for Pompton Lakes, Withholds Superfund Status

Lake dredging widely derided as insufficient and irrelevant to the immediate health threat.

Former Gov. Jim Florio, the legislative "father" of the Superfund.

Environmental officials hope to launch cleanups over the next two years that will address what remains of the complex and extensive contamination from the old DuPont munitions plant in Pompton Lakes.

Following a public hearing whose limited goals brought cries of "farce" from many residents, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said they will roll out a series of measures in the coming months.

But the agency brushed off requests to add the site to the federal Superfund, despite declarations from former Gov. Jim Florio and Love Canal activist Lois Gibbs that the cleanup should be a national priority.

The challenges are daunting. In a century of operation, the 570-acre plant, which closed in 1994, polluted its own grounds and local waterways, including Pompton Lake. Those problems began being identified in the 1980s.

More recently, studies have charted a plume of contaminated groundwater that is releasing toxic vapors into homes between the plant and the lake. That disclosure has contributed its own miasma of mistrust, because it came after many homeowners had agreed to settlements with DuPont.

The January 5 public hearing was the first held by the EPA in the long, meandering course of the cleanup. Despite heated opposition from many speakers, the agency shows no signs of dropping a DuPont plan to dredge mercury-laced sediment from 25.8 acres of the 250-acre lake.

In interviews in the wake of the hearing, though, EPA officials promised renewed efforts this year to stop the plume, as well as an initiative to more thoroughly remove contaminated soil from the plant, which could begin in 2013.

Love Canal activist Lois Gibbs.

In previous years, DuPont worked with the state Department of Environmental Protection to remove some contaminated soil from areas on the plant grounds, notably "shooting holes," ponds used in explosive munitions tests. That cured some hot spots and run-off problems, but ignored deep contamination elsewhere on the property.

"There are still significant areas of lead and mercury that go to quite a depth," said David Kluesner, the EPA's community involvement officer for the site.

How "significant" translates into cubic yards remains uncertain, because the depth of contamination still must be charted in some parts of the property, he said. But as that is measured, the agency expects to "develop and put forward cleanup proposals in late 2012 into early 2013," Kluesner said.

Actual soil removal could begin 2013, although work likely would continue through 2018, he said.

Meanwhile, after a recent failure of a DuPont test project to decontaminate the groundwater plume, the EPA will try two more approaches this year.

"We're still in the pilot and technical evaluation phase," Kluesner said, but with positive results, "we could start treating it at the end of 2012."

"We're working on all these things on parallel tracks," said EPA spokeswoman Bonnie Bellow. "The dredging project is being presented now because it is the one that's ready to go."

These hopeful words face skepticism from many residents. The presence of solvents linked to cancers in the plume is an especially sore point in a town with a suspected "cluster" of the disease.

Volatile organic compounds in the plume, notably trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene, percolate through the soil and release vapor into the air -- and into the basements of about 450 homes between the plant and the lake.

Over the past two years, an ongoing study by the state Department of Health and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has found unusually high hospitalization rates for some types of cancers among local residents.

The health agencies began releasing that information in late 2009, spurring the EPA to assume a more prominent role in January 2010 as "co-lead" on the cleanup with the DEP. The state agency reached a consent agreement with DuPont in 1988, and the slow pace of remediation at the site since then has made it a lightning rod for local criticism.

The EPA's initial foray, dredging mercury from the delta of the Acid Brook in the lake, has not gone over much better. At the public hearing, a parade of speakers complained it ignores most of the lake and most of the problems.

"We're no closer to a cleanup today than we were 20 years ago," resident Thomas Evelina said at the hearing at Pompton Lakes High School.

"Clean up the area where people live in before you clean up a lake where nobody lives," said Kevin Harrison, a resident with two young children.

In an earlier phase of the cleanup, DuPont installed a pumping system at the factory, and removed contamination from the brook, including stripping soil from neighboring yards.

Because of these steps, "we do not believe the lake will be re-contaminated" after the dredging, Bellow said. The Acid Brook, which became a center of production activities beginning in the 1920s, was the source of the heavy metals in the delta, she said.

Some residents believe contamination already has spread from the dredging area delineated by DuPont, rendering the proposal inadequate.

During the hearing, Richard Chapin, an engineer, said the dredging area ignores contamination "hot spots" on the Wayne side of the lake, as well as possible downstream effects.

Wayne resident Donald Leich said turbulence from recent large storms, such as Hurricane Irene, has almost certainly spread contamination. He urged the EPA to do a more extensive cleanup.

"I think we deserve a much better plan for remediation," Lisa Riggiola, one of the organizers of Citizens for a Clean Pompton Lakes. She called the hearing "a PR move to make it look like DuPont is doing something."

She has the backing of Florio, the legislative "father" of the Superfund, and Gibbs, known as the law's "mother" after she organized residents of her highly contaminated neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

"Superfund is exactly what you need," Gibbs told a lakeside rally before the hearing. The situation in scenic Pompton Lakes reminds her of the problems she and her neighbors faced, Gibbs said.

Listing the Pompton Lakes site on the Superfund would increase transparency and accountability, according to Florio. "One of the things it entails is community participation," he said.

But last spring, the borough council disagreed, joining 250 residents who signed a petition against the designation. Superfund supporters have generated far higher petition numbers, but Riggiola acknowledged the program carries a "stigma" for some residents.

Others hold out that DuPont will eventually redevelop the plant property into a golf course, hotel, conference center, or other attraction.

Bellow said the EPA "is listening" to residents who want the Superfund designation, "but the statements collected at the hearing were those about the Acid Brook delta dredging."

"This is about dollars and cents," said Gibbs, director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Falls Church, Va.

When another Superfund site is disclosed in DuPont's financial reports, investors "know there's a huge liability and potential lawsuits," she said. Handling it under RCRA eliminates that level of disclosure and minimizes public participation, she said.

Ironically, a Superfund designation could help make the property more marketable after the cleanup, because its certifications shield owners or buyers from future liability, Gibbs said.

As swans and geese paddled in the lake behind him, Florio called the debate about its effects on the local economy "interesting, artificial, and entirely irrelevant. Because if you don't have a clean environment, you're not going to have jobs."

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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