Though it’s hard to find absolute proof of a connection, Jeff Tittel agrees the timing was no small coincidence.
“All of a sudden, all that wallboard started coming in a month or so after Sandy,” he said. “And you have to kind of wonder where it came from because it was also all wet. And that’s where the real problem started. It’s one of those things where it looks like a duck, it quacks like a duck. You know, I don’t think it’s a horse.”
Roxbury Township officials also think the two are related. Last October theycalling on the state to provide $53 million of Sandy recovery funds to address the situation. And internal emails show the possibility of a Sandy connection was seriously considered by .
Even Fenimore’s owner – Richard Bernardi – notes in legal documents that storm debris is most likely the biggest culprit.
“Every truckload that was delivered to Fenimore is documented, so we know where it came from,” explained attorney Matthew Fredericks, who represents Bernardi and SEP. “Not specifically the exact town where it originated, but we know the carriers, and we know the transfer stations that it came from. We also know that the same transfer stations and the same companies that were taking Sandy material were also simultaneously delivering to Fenimore.”
State officials are downplaying any links, however.
“What happened at Fenimore was not connected to Sandy,” DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese said in an email. “The contentions by some Roxbury residents about an ‘exponential increase’ in material [being trucked in] after Sandy is a false attempt to link the two.”
He acknowledged that debris accepted at Fenimore might “have contained some material that might have come from Sandy. But there was no such directive and no knowledge that Sandy materials came there in any substantive amount.”
Regardless of the source, environmentalists say it was a bad decision for the state to allow Fenimore to accept C&D screenings in the first place.
“Were they smoking crack when they thought you could bring in wallboard?” Tittel asked. “I mean, everybody knows that wallboard gives off hydrogen sulfide when it gets wet. And landfills – until they’re finally closed – will get wet. So why would you even allow that, knowing the impact that stuff would have potentially?”
To be clear, not everything can be recycled, and some scraps of gypsum wallboard that remain after building demolitions and natural disasters like Sandy do need to be disposed of somewhere. But Tittel says New Jersey should follow the lead of other states like New York in segregating construction and demolition debris from the waste stream and sending it only to landfills specially designed to accept it. After some odor complaints in 2004, New Hampshire similarly instituted a ban on the use of C&D screenings in municipal landfills. And Massachusetts now requires that recyclers remove as much gypsum as possible if C&D screenings are to be used to help close a landfill.
In New Jersey -- on the other hand --commingle construction and demolition waste with all the various other types of debris they accept.
“There’s plenty of gypsum board in New Jersey that’s landfilled every day,” said Ragonese, from the DEP. “If you do it in a proper fashion and you properly deal with your landfill and you properly put in the fill you’re supposed to every day, and deal with it as every legitimate landfill does, you don’t run into these problems.”
But Fenimore has had more than its share of problems, with critics charging the plan was. In addition to the site lacking modern-day environmental safeguards, it’s also ringed by residential neighborhoods that were built much closer than they are at most other landfills. And the mountainous topography of the area may have worsened the situation, funneling fumes and runoff that might more easily dissipate in flatter terrains.
What’s more, an engineer hired by SEP testified that the C&D screenings were wet when they arrived at the site, so they were already starting to decompose, and Bernardi’s attorney claims state officials exacerbated the problems by refusing to allow SEP to spread the debris over a wider area and take other measures to eliminate the odor. He said he believes the DEP’s refusal to connect the Fenimore problems to Sandy is a politically motivated attempt to avoid taking any responsibility, and he framed SEP and Richard Bernardi as scapegoats.
Others say it’s hard to point the finger in any one direction.
“This is one of those situations where nobody comes out smelling like roses,” said the NRDC’s Eric Goldstein. “The way in which the facility was opened, the lack of environmental protections onsite, the failure to engage the public in key decision-making points . . . It's really a case study of how to bungle a landfill closure, and unfortunately there's enough blame to go around to both government agencies and the landfill operators.”
“Everybody blames the owner, SEP: Richard and Marilyn Bernardi,” said resident Shannon Caccavella. “But somebody had to allow them to get here. So do you start with the Highlands Council? Do you start with the NJDEP that allowed him to start dumping? Do you blame the township for allowing this to happen and not fighting harder? It’s really a viscous circle that you can go around, because the more you dig, the deeper that we start looking into it, the more names that keep popping up.” In response to health concerns and persistent odor complaints from residents, state lawmakersin June of last year to seize control of the site and allow the DEP to begin remediation. Since that time, officials have installed a number of wells around the landfill to pump out the hydrogen sulfide gas, burn it off and filter it, and they’ve also put air monitors around the perimeter of the site. Later this month, the state plans to award a contract to a company to cap the 19 acre portion of the 65 acre site where the new debris was brought, with hopes to complete the project by the end of the year.
“We were going to have a solar project on an old landfill, clean up the landfill to proper, current standards and add a green component. And that was the plan for Fenimore,” said Ragonese. “That plan went wrong, and we all know that. We wish we didn’t go into business with Mr. Bernardi, and we wouldn’t do it today, but it happened, and it’s done. The goal was to do something good. In this case it didn’t work, but we’re making it better now.”
Indeed, residents say the air quality has improved and that the fumes aren’t as persistent or severe as they once were. But the issue remains contentious, with various lawsuits winding their way through the courts and acontinuing to call for the state to dig up the contaminated debris and truck it out of town.
Meanwhile, environmentalists think New Jersey would do well to heed what they see as the many lessons of this whole experience.
“We turned what could have been something positive -- solar on a landfill -- And we turned it into a toxic nightmare for a community. And the problem that I see is that DEP has not learned from their mistakes,” said Jeff Tittel.
Assuming there’s a Sandy connection as most people think there is, Eric Goldstein’s biggest takeaway is that New Jersey needs to engage in more leadership from the top and move beyond its home rule traditions, which delegate emergency debris removal plans and procedures primarily toand . He’s calling for the creation of a statewide disaster debris management plan as other places like have done.
“The objective ought to be to put in place a comprehensive road map so that officials know exactly where our wastes will go following the next disaster,” he said. “To line up the contractors, to identify the haulers, to identify the markets for materials so that the government agencies and towns and municipalities are not forced to scramble in the immediate, chaotic aftermath of the next giant storm that comes down the pike. That's what wasn't done before Sandy and it still is not really being done to a large degree, even as we speak.”
Back in Roxbury, residents continue to go about their daily lives, constantly aware of the potential dangers lurking in their community. Town officials are developing a mobile app so people can more easily check up-to-the minute air quality results from monitors around the landfill. The local elementary school also keeps a close eye on the readings to determine whether to let the kids out for recess.
“This is a very difficult situation for a fantastic township,” said Township Manager Christopher Raths. “We’re going to properly address this situation within the means that we have, and we will continue to push whatever agency it is to give us the proper reports and take the proper action to make sure that this facility is abated in the best interests of the health of our residents.”
In the meantime, until the problems at Fenimore are resolved, Shannon Caccavella says she feels trapped, with no way to escape.
“How do you walk away from your house?” she asked. “Nobody’s going to buy your house. People can’t sell their houses. The house is contaminated. So where do you go? What do you do? It’s a very sad situation.”