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Federal EPA Says It Will Conduct Further Studies at South Plainfield Superfund Site

Environmental activists greet announcement with guarded optimism, concern about delaying tactics.

In response to public criticism of its plan to simply monitor highly contaminated groundwater at a South Plainfield Superfund site, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to conduct further studies.

Despite extensive soil removals and building demolitions, the former site of Cornell-Dubilier Electronics remains one of the most highly polluted in New Jersey because of chemicals dumped during almost a century when various businesses used the 26-acre property.

In a cautious announcement earlier this month, the EPA committed only to “deferring action on a portion of the ground water that may be adversely affecting the Bound Brook until further information is collected.”

How large that portion is remains unclear. Both the nature of the investigation and the extent of the area to be studied are “to be determined,” said EPA spokesman Elias Rodriguez.

The announcement drew similarly constrained praise from some of those who pressed the agency to do more to treat or remove contaminated groundwater. Robert Spiegel, executive director of the Edison Wetlands Association, described the decision as “a small concession” to residents.

“We are glad the EPA has stopped this plan from going forward; however, what will be the next step?” Jeff Tittel, director of the state chapter of the Sierra Club, asked in a press release. “Will they come forward with a comprehensive plan to truly clean up the site or is this just a delay?”

Still, environmentalists noted the decision marks a break in a recent pattern from EPA public hearings, where agency officials have heard criticism, extended public comment periods, but ultimately reaffirmed their decisions at the end of comment periods.

That could signal a change, since the EPA’s new plan to remove lead from the Raritan Bay Slag sites in Sayreville and the Laurence Harbor section of Old Bridge also has received initial praise. A hearing on that proposal is scheduled October 17 at the George Bush Senior Center, 1 Old Bridge Plaza in Old Bridge.

Still, environmentalists were dismayed that the EPA still considers the underlying geology “too complex” to pump and treat contaminated groundwater at the White Chemical Corp. site on Frelinghuysen Avenue in Newark. The agency rejected its own “most effective” remedy, saying it would still leave some chemicals in place, in favor of a cheaper approach.

The EPA heard mixed messages about American Cyanamid along the Raritan River in Bridgewater, but stuck with its plan to upgrade groundwater pumping but immobilize some contamination in place and cap much of the 435-acre property, heavily polluted with benzene and other chemicals.

Meanwhile, the EPA punted on a request from Pompton Lakes residents that it take over a slow-moving contamination cleanup affecting a substantial portion of their town. The agency directed them to get approval from Gov. Chris Christie, who turned them down.

But the politics cut several ways. While environmental groups press for the EPA to take the lead in Pompton Lakes from the state Department of Environmental Protection, that is what happened in Bridgewater. Some are unhappy with the result.

Tittel described the new Bridgewater plan as the EPA “letting polluters off the hook with a mediocre clean-up plan that will not protect the public.” Somewhat simplifying, Spiegel said the agency will “put a plastic cap over this highly toxic site and hope that it doesn’t wash away.”

A low-lying site along the Raritan River Bridgewater is “the poster child for a problem that’s all too common in New Jersey, toxic flooding,” Spiegel said. He noted that as well as seeing lagoons of toxic chemicals inundated in major storms, the site has leaked benzene into waterways.

Both want the cleanup to proceed with more extensive removal and decontamination than the cap plan envisions. That was happening for a time under state oversight, but ground to a halt after a chosen decontamination method, large-scale composting, was ruled ineffective.

A local group formed more than two decades ago to fight a proposed waste incinerator on the site has endorsed the EPA’s approach. But that came with some caveats that the agency has not entirely addressed, according to Walt Sodie, executive director of CRISIS.

In response to the group’s comments, the EPA agreed to improvements such as moving some material out of the site’s extensive floodplain, and building an on-site system for long-term groundwater treatment rather than pumping it to the nearby Somerset-Raritan Valley Sewerage Authority plant, Sodie said.

But the agency should require current owner Pfizer to build the cap to “the highest engineering standard,” and pay “whatever the cost” to prevent against the erosion fears cited by Tittel and Spiegel, Sodie said.

The EPA also should require Pfizer or any successor to monitor the property “in perpetuity” under its supervision, and consider requiring the company to post a bond against future harm to the community, he said.

Sodie acknowledged those demands probably will not go anywhere unless local politicians and businesses line up behind CRISIS.

At a March hearing, the EPA took the unusual step of giving priority to comments from the area chamber of commerce, the Somerset County Business Partnership. The partnerships’ vice president, Ed Seliga, urged the agency to get the property back on the tax roles.

“Clean it up and put it to use,” he said.

“We've strengthened our lines of communication with the political and business interests and hope to build support for our "spare no expense" position on flood protection,” Sodie said. “The fact that we took a reasoned approach to the remediation plan for the impoundments and soils should help.”

Building political consensus has been elusive at all the sites, not least because the cleanups have taken so long. American Cyanamid was added to the Superfund list in 1983. Over the years, 140 acres were declared clean enough to be developed into a shopping center and Somerset County’s baseball stadium.

But for the remaining 435 acres, even the cap plan is projected to take another decade and cost $204.2 million. EPA priced the most extensive effort, to excavate and treat contaminated materials, at $1.8 billion over 30 years.

White Chemical Corp., 4.4 acres in a mixed industrial-residential area near Weequahic Park, also was declared a Superfund site in 1983. Over the years, environmental agencies removed thousands of containers of chemicals, excavated contaminated soil, and demolished buildings.

As a next step, though, the EPA chose injecting a mix of carbon and iron to reduce volatile organic compounds in groundwater. The estimated $24.9 million cost over 30 years is less than half that of the approach the agency itself said would be the most effective. That carries weight.

Since Congress allowed a tax on polluting industries to expire in 1995, the Superfund frequently has needed to tap taxpayers to finance cleanups. The EPA reported that it has collected only about a third of its costs at White from companies that used the property.

“Just because you have a clean-up plan does not mean it is clean,” Tittel said. “Bioremediation and adding more chemicals to the already polluted groundwater will not work, and the contamination will continue to impact more homes and people.”

But Mayor Cory Booker had no comment, and both of New Jersey’s senators, Frank Lautenberg and Bob Menendez, praised the EPA approach.

In South Plainfield, industrial operations began at the Superfund site a century ago, and it continued to be an important tax ratable after Cornell-Dubilier left in 1962. An industrial park operated on the site for years after it was added to the clean-up list in 1998 because of extraordinary levels of carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls and trichloroethylene.

The borough has had a redeveloper waiting for the go-ahead to rebuild the property since 2002, five years before the EPA began substantial work on demolishing buildings, removing soil and debris, and paving the surface.

At an August hearing, however, some residents joined environmentalists in questioning whether the new plan for monitoring groundwater is sufficient. The wetlands association has been in regular contact with the EPA since then, Spiegel said.

But he remains concerned that the agency’s plan to address the brook in a future phase could be counter-productive. Such bifurcations are common in EPA projects. At American Cyanamid, another study will look at several impoundments along the river. At White Chemical, a future phase will examine the possible hazards of chemical vapors.

At Cornell-Dubilier, though, “the groundwater and the Bound Brook are all part of the same system,” Spiegel said.

Contamination contributed to the Middlesex Water Co.’s decision to stop pumping from wells around Spring Lake Park in 2003. But since then, some residents near the Cornell-Dubilier site have reported rising water tables and flooded basements.

“The fact that those wells had to be closed shows that not all the contaminated groundwater is trapped in the rock like the EPA believes,” Spiegel said.

The EPA agrees that the well closings “influenced the direction of groundwater movement” around the site, with more than 800 acres affected. Water tables in 2000 were about five feet lower than the most recent data, the agency reported. So far, though, the EPA has not embraced Spiegel's position that lack of more comprehensive action could turn the site into "another Pompton Lakes."

The Passaic County community is battling a legacy of contamination from the old DuPont munitions plant on high ground on the north side of town. A plume of contamination spread downhill from the plant under a residential neighborhood, where homes now need protection from harmful vapors.

"For years, people in Pompton Lakes were told everything was all right," Spiegel said. "By the time tests were done, the plume had spread so far that people's health and property values were already being affected."

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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