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Latest Plan to Seal Off Superfund Site Divides Community

Local businesses want to move ahead, environmentalists argue proceed with caution.

Almost three decades into the Superfund cleanup of the old American Cyanamid plant along the Raritan River in Bridgewater, the latest plan for the heavily contaminated property has local business interests and environmentalists at odds.

The former want to implement a cleanup program -- which will take another 10 years and $204 million -- and move on. The latter fear that the plan will contribute to flooding and will not protect the state's drinking water.

The site is located adjacent to the Raritan River and lies above the Brunswick Aquifer, New Jersey’s second-largest source of drinking water. Area residents are serviced by a public water supply that provides a safe source of water.

The plant, the scene of intensive chemical manufacturing during most of the 20th century, has been closed since 1999 because of air, water, and ground pollution. Over the years, environmental agencies have overseen the removal and treatment of an estimated 1.1 million cubic yards of material, but some of the biggest challenges remain.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials came to the Somerset County vo-tech in Bridgewater to discuss their latest plan for some of the on-site lagoons filled with toxic sludge, groundwater and wetlands on the remaining 425 acres of what was once a 575-acre property.

Although about 175 people turned out for what was billed as a public hearing, the EPA representatives consumed almost half of the allotted three hours with presentations on the history and administration of the Superfund program, and the history of the site, which in recent years has passed through numerous corporate owners before ending up in the hands of Pfizer.

The drug company backs the proposal, which targets six of the impoundment areas once used for waste from manufacturing or other operations. They have been frequently inundated since the 1980s by storms that spread metals, volatile, and semi-volatile compounds around the property and neighboring waterways.

Some of those close to the prolonged clean-up have praised Pfizer for showing more initiative and cooperation than earlier owners to do something about a problem that it inherited. One of the previous owners, American Home Products, was able to sell 150 acres away from the river, which had been primarily used for offices, after environmental agencies declared that area safe in 1998.

Robert Albano of the township's steering committee for the site, said he has been working with the company on an "effective and responsible" cleanup plan, resulting in the EPA proposal.

“Clean it up and put it to use, we’re very much in favor of that,” said Ed Seliga of the Somerset Business Partnership, a county chamber of commerce.

But given the complexity of the project, work likely will not be completed until near the end of an estimated 10-year schedule, according to EPA official Walter Mugdan, a Superfund supervisor. Still, he and other EPA officials emphasized the project, which carries an estimated $204 million price tag, would be done faster than more sweeping and comprehensive options.

Under the proposal, some of the contaminated lagoons would be dealt with in place, by mixing a stiffening agent such as cement into the contaminated sludge. The areas would then be capped with an impermeable membrane and two feet of soil. A more extensive system would be built to draw off ground water.

That did not mollify environmentalists who had to wait until after the presentation and the plaudits to speak.

"This is a problem, an issue, for everyone who lives downstream along the Raritan or gets their drinking water from the river," said Robert Spiegel executive director of the Edison Wetlands Association.

"The question you need to ask is 'What's the situation going to be long-term?'" said Raritan Riverkeeper Bill Schulz. "What will be the integrity of the cap after being subjected to the floods on site."

Jeff Tittle, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the plan calls for putting 600,000 cubic yards of fill into the floodplain, potentially worsening flood conditions.

"I coined the term 'pave and wave' to describe capping a site and walking away," he said. "This is going to be pave and float, because that cap is going to wash down the river along with material it is supposed to protect us from."

Long-time local monitor Walt Sodie of the grassroots group CRISIS, said he has "conditionally" endorsed the plan, but thinks elements need to be changed. In particular, he said, contaminated water should not be sent to the neighboring Somerset-Raritan Valley Sewerage Authority, which is not rated to handle it.

Over the years, some lagoons on the site have been cleaned up. The latest plan targets six more as well as groundwater and soil throughout the site. A separate proposal is expected later this year for the two lagoons considered to have the highest concentrations of hazardous materials, at the eastern end of the site along the river.

But those covered by the new plan are hazardous enough. Heavy tar-like surface layers conceal an underlying sludge of volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, which can cause health problems through the air, soil, or water. Three of the lagoons have significant levels of the potentially toxic hydrocarbons benzene, toluene, xylene, and naphthalene, as well as a varied mix of other pollutants.

The plan comes after the revelation that water samples taken from a nearby site in the Raritan in recent years found elevated levels of benzene, the principal contaminant on the Cyanamid site. The environmental agencies did not bring up those findings during regular meetings about the progress of the clean-up, according to Sodie.

An EPA spokeswoman said her agency was unaware of the benzene reports until the DEP included them in a report. But she agreed with the DEP that since the compound is such a widespread pollutant from petroleum products, it is difficult to tie the levels in the river to a particular source.

The 575-acre superfund site has a history of industrial pollution dating back to 1915. For nearly 100 years, prior owners used the location for manufacturing chemicals and disposed of chemical sludge and other wastes on the property. The soil, groundwater, and waste disposal areas, called impoundments, are contaminated with volatile organic compounds (VOCs), semi-VOCs, metals, and other harmful chemicals. Some of these harmful chemicals are known to cause cancer in humans and animals or have other adverse effects on human health. The extent and nature of potential health effects depend on many factors, including the level and length of exposure.

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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