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Is Sandy Debris in Roxbury's Fenimore Landfill Poisoning Town's Children, Adults?

Environmentalists blame state and say new rules are needed

fenimore landfill resident
Roxbury resident Shannon Caccavella stands next to an air-quality monitor in her backyard, a short distance from the Fenimore landfill

After Sandy slammed into New Jersey’s coast in October, 2012, the state was left with the gargantuan task of collecting and disposing of nearly nine million cubic yards of debris, enough to fill a football stadium almost a mile high, according to FEMA. As soggy carpets and damaged appliances piled up on people’s curbs, landfills and incinerators around the state were granted special, emergency permits to operate longer hours and more days a week to process all the waste.

In addition to all the regular sites, the Fenimore landfill in Roxbury was very likely the final destination of some of that trash, although state officials say there’s no evidence to link the massive increase in debris at the site to Sandy. Since that time, people living near the landfill have gotten sick, the site has become entangled in a myriad of lawsuits, and some town residents feel they’ve indirectly become victims of the storm, even though they live nowhere near the Shore.

Environmentalists say Fenimore is an extreme example of what can happen when regulations aren’t strict enough. They say the landfill presents valuable lessons for how New Jersey should handle its waste, particularly in the aftermath of future disasters. They also criticize the state for not yet learning from its mistakes and are recommending a variety of changes to regulations.

For its part, the state says Fenimore was an isolated case that had “gone wrong” and points the finger at the landfill owner.

The Fenimore Backstory

Fenimore operated as a private landfill from the 1950s to the late ‘70s, accepting municipal waste from half a dozen towns in Morris County. The state shut it down in 1979, in part because it failed to meet newer environmental requirements to keep contaminants from spreading off the property.

Over the next several decades, ownership of the site changed hands several times, but it remained unused. Trees and reed grasses began to regrow on the landfill, and residential neighborhoods sprang up around the perimeter. While noting some problems, a study commissioned by the NJDEP in 2005 basically gave Fenimore a clean bill of health.

“Based on the results of the analyses of the portable well, soil, surface water, sediment, leachate, and soil gas samples collected, no conditions were found to exist at the site that pose an acute, immediate direct threat to human health. Accordingly, this site does not pose an Immediate Environmental Concern as defined by NJDEP,” the report said. Like many older landfills, Fenimore was never properly closed, though. In accordance with state requirements, closing a landfill entails covering it with a thick, Polyethylene-like liner or a layer of clay densely packed several feet thick to “minimize long term infiltration and percolation of liquid.” Gravel, cement or demolition material is sometimes mixed in to stabilize the cap, and then it’s covered with topsoil and planted with vegetation to keep it from eroding.

Fenimore is hardly unique. According to a state database, out of 814 known or suspected landfills in New Jersey that are no longer in operation, just 88 have been properly closed, while 725 – or nearly 90 percent -- were never correctly capped. The state has a sanitary landfill closure fund -- supported by taxes imposed on landfill operators -- that’s supposed to help cover the costs of properly closing some of these older landfills, but lawmakers have routinely raided this fund, diverting more than $100 million to other uses over the past decade, said New Jersey Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel.

Relying on the Private Sector

Given the reality that it could cost billions of dollars to go back and close all these landfills, the state has increasingly turned to the private sector in recent years to pick up some of the slack. New Jersey’s most recent Energy Master Plan advocates turning landfills and brownfield sites into solar farms to help with their cleanup.

“Some of these properties cannot be developed for general commercial or residential purposes and may not provide adequate revenue to the towns and counties where they are situated,” the plan says. “However, solar development can offset the costs to cap and or remediate these sites and should be encouraged where local government has determined it to be the best use of the property.”

But while solar farms may sound like a great idea, they’re costly to build, and the return on investment could take years. In the meantime, site owners need funding to kick-start the process and prepare the land. That’s where things get complicated.

Environmentalists say the most ecologically sound method of capping a site to seal in contaminants, level it out, and provide a stable base for installation of solar panels is to simply add “clean fill” -- soil that’s free of extraneous debris, solid waste or other contaminants.

“Under no circumstances does it make environmental or economic sense to bring in dirty fill, except perhaps to the landfill owner,” says Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It's a major public risk, and I think you could find municipal landfill operators around the country who would say that that's a real no-no.”

But what Goldstein proposes is much easier said than done, argues Matthew Fredericks, the attorney representing Strategic Environmental Partners (SEP), which now owns the Fenimore Landfill. SEP purchased the site in January, 2011 and signed an agreement with the Department of Environmental Protection in October of that year to close Fenimore and build a solar farm.

“If the state had all the money in the world, it would be easy. Just go around and put clean material that's very expensive to obtain and clean these places up,” Fredericks said. “The state doesn't have that money, and so you need an economic model that allows these sites to be capped.”

That economic model involves allowing landfill operators to accept truckloads of new debris to produce income in the form of tipping fees from contractors disposing of their waste.

“People aren't out there just looking to spend millions and tens of millions of dollars to cap these sites,” Fredericks explained. “You need to generate funds and operating capital at the beginning before you can then start spending all the money on the stuff that eventually caps the landfill. Otherwise, financially it wouldn’t be possible.”

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