Officials in the South Jersey city of Vineland are stepping up their efforts to persuade the federal government to upgrade its removal of toxic material from two bodies of water near the Superfund site of a former metals plant.
City officials say the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency needs to do more to ensure that contaminants including chromium, arsenic, and mercury are cleaned from Burnt Mill Pond, a 17-acre site on the north side of the city, and Hudson Branch, a creek that feeds the pond.
Although the federal agency has published its plan to clean the sediment and surface water at the sites, local officials say it would be doing so only to an “industrial” standard, and not to a higher “residential” grade that would make them safe for recreational activities like fishing and boating.
A cleanup to the “residential” standard would involve a deeper excavation in the pond and creek, rather than just a “scraping” of sediment, said Paul Spinelli, a Vineland City Councilman.
City representatives will make their arguments to EPA officials at a meeting requested by the City in Edison on January 13. The meeting is expected to be attended by elected officials including U.S. Congressman Frank Lobiondo, U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, and State Senator Jeff Van Drew, or their representatives.
Sen. Van Drew said he believes the EPA needs to step up its remediation efforts at the site. “My position is that this needs to be done,” he said.
Steven Sandberg, a spokesman for Sen. Menendez, said he would wait for the outcome of the meeting before commenting.
If the EPA refuses to upgrade its proposed cleanup, City officials say they may sue the federal agency or Shieldalloy Metallurgical Corp. (SMC), the company that the EPA says caused the contamination through its production of metals and alloys at a site in neighboring Newfield borough between 1955 and 2006.
“The EPA has chosen a less-than-acceptable plan for Vineland which again is to do nothing, allow SMC to walk away with their profits, leaving their waste for Vineland residents to live with,” City Solicitor Rick Tonetta wrote in a November 2014 letter seeking assistance from officials in Gloucester County.
The EPA says there is no threat to human or environmental health from chemicals in the sediment or surface water in the pond. It made the same assessment for surface water in Hudson Branch, but said it found chromium, copper, lead nickel, and vanadium in creek sediment that were at “concentrations of concern” to fish and wildlife.
“Based on analysis by EPA, there is no indication of chemicals in the sediment or surface water of Burnt Mill Pond at levels that would be of concern to people, fish and wildlife in the pond,” the agency said in a September statement describing the cleanup plan.
Vineland officials arranged for independent tests on chromium and other heavy metals in the pond and found that they exceeded the levels deemed safe for residential use.
“They were the same as what the EPA had but they were above the residential levels that are acceptable,” said Spinelli.
He also argued that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection should support the enhanced cleanup because it designated the area around the pond a Green Acres site.
At the 67-acre Superfund site where the empty Shieldalloy buildings now stand, the EPA plans to cap soil and remove contaminated sediment, at a cost of $5.3 million, which is due to be paid by the company. The cleanup plan, which will remove hexavalent chromium and heavy metals from soil, sediment, and surface water, will also include a ban of future residential use of the site.
The contaminants can have serious health impacts including nervous system damage and cancer, according to the EPA.
Cleanup of the waterways to a “residential” standard would cost about $11 million, Tonetta said.
Tonetta also accused the DEP, which led the cleanup from 1996 until it was taken over by the EPA in 2010, of delaying action at the expense of local residents and the environment.
“The City of Vineland has determined that it must take action to protect its residents and natural resources, especially in light of the egregious actions of a major corporation and the inactions of the NJDEP and EPA over 50 years,” he said in the letter.
The DEP is responsible, along with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for remediation of slag piles containing radioactive material, said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP. “It has been our stated goal all along that we want the material removed to a disposal facility approved to handle low-level radioactive materials,” he said.
Without the enhanced remediation, city officials argue that residents will continue to be exposed to contaminants in the water and earth that some claim are linked to what many claim are a high number of local incidences of cancer and auto-immune diseases.
Sandra Schwan, 47, who has lived within a mile of the Shieldalloy plant for more than 35 years, said she believes environmental contamination from the plant is the cause of her scleraderma, an auto-immmune disease.
Schwan said she had four miscarriages and now has an autistic son. She said she couldn’t directly link her son’s autism to environmental contamination but said the child’s condition is likely related to her auto-immune disease.
“I blame my auto-immune disease on Shieldalloy,” she said.