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Pompton Lake Dredging Delayed

Decision follows criticism by residents and activists that original plan is inadequate.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will take a second look at its widely criticized plan to dredge contaminated sludge from a 26-acre portion of Pompton Lake.

The agency announced today that it still expects to proceed with work in the lake, but has delayed any dredging until spring 2013.

The decision followed pointed criticism of the project as insufficient, and calls by some residents, as well as former Gov. James Florio and nationally known environmental activist Lois Gibbs, to add the area to the federal Superfund clean-up list.

A review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave the skeptics more ammunition. In a February 9 letter, J. Eric Davis Jr., an FWS field supervisor, described the dredging as only "an important first step." Davis told EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck that the plan appeared inadequate to halt and reverse contamination from the old DuPont munitions plant.

"[T]he Service does not believe that the proposed remedial action, as currently planned, will completely address historic releases, nor be sufficient to protect against future injury," Davis wrote.

"It's wonderful news," said Lisa Riggiola of the grassroots group Citizens for a Clean Pompton Lakes. "I certainly was very emotional when I just got that EPA statement. It's like, finally, someone cares about us."

Earlier this month, the EPA revealed that recent tests of the Acid Brook, supposedly cleaned up in the 1990s, found somewhat elevated levels of lead, mercury, and the solvent tetrachloroethylene. But EPA spokeswoman Bonnie Bellow said the agency's review will not address calls for further action at the plant or for the Superfund designation.

"The statement we put out is specific to the lake dredging," she said.

EPA officials have described the dredging as just one step in parallel plans for work being coordinated among itself, the state Department of Environmental Protection, and the company. But agency officials held a January hearing on the dredging because it was considered to be the furthest along in readiness.

The proposal called for removing an estimated 68,000 cubic yards of sediment from the brook's submerged delta in the lake, as well as 7,800 yards from the nearby shore. But those numbers could change, according to Bellow. A DuPont-funded study of the lakebed released this month showed "some of the sediment is shifting," which could mean the area most heavily contaminated by run-off from the former plant has expanded, she said.

Any dredging needs to be done carefully so as not to stir up contaminants that have settled to the lake bottom and suspend them in water, said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. A water supply intake near the Acid Brook means toxic materials could be pumped into the Wanaque or Oradell reservoirs, he said.

"They need to do this cleanup right to protect the people of Pompton Lakes but also for all the people that get drinking water from the Ramapo" River system, Tittel said.

Since the late 1980s, when then-Mayor Jack Sinsimer and other locals began asking questions, the scenic community has uncovered a legacy of pollution from its former largest employer, an industrial complex sitting on a 576-acre site on high ground at the north end of town. The plant closed in 1994, but during a century of operation, mainly under DuPont, it discharged chemicals and heavy metals, particularly mercury and lead, into the soil, ponds and waterways.

Much of that found its way downhill toward the lake, particularly via the Acid Brook and an underground plume passing beneath an adjacent residential neighborhood. As proposed, the dredging plan would address only the delta of the brook, whose higher reaches were once a busy part of munitions manufacturing and testing.

"The important thing is that the entire lake is cleaned up. It's 250 acres, not just the 26 acres they're talking about," Riggiola said. "And of course, the [plant] site itself needs to be cleaned up."

"If they don't address the source first, the plant, then the lake could just become re-contaminated," said Dana Patterson, toxics coordinator for the Edison Wetlands Association, which has been working with residents.

While the association is "excited" about the dredging delay, "we're still skeptical about the actual plan," Patterson said. She credited "public pressure," especially outreach by the residents' group and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, for raising the profile of slow-running remediation efforts in the community.

Any image of progress has suffered a series of jolts in recent years, with the disclosure that volatile organic compounds from the plume, notably trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene, have released vapors into the basements of about 450 homes between the plant and the lake.

That information followed the signing of settlements by some affected homeowners, which now prevent them from pursuing larger claims against the company.

Meanwhile, 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.

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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