EPA Opts to Monitor Groundwater at South Plainfield Superfund Site

Joe Tyrrell | August 8, 2012 | Energy & Environment
Agency admits that plan, while less costly than alternatives, will leave carcinogens trapped in aquifer

A plan to monitor contaminated groundwater at the Cornell-Dubilier Superfund site in South Plainfield should be sufficient to protect public health while studies continue, according to environmental officials.

Despite years of soil excavation and building demolitions, though, officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged this next phase would leave carcinogens in underlying groundwater at the site on Hamilton Boulevard along the Bound Brook.

That drew some push-back from about 45 residents and environmental activists at the South Plainfield Senior Center, some of whom described the plan as virtually “doing nothing.”

EPA officials responded that even the most expensive approach could not remove all pollutants from the underlying rock formations and aquifer. For the most part, they remain shielded from human exposure, officials said. They noted the state agrees with the EPA’s approach.

“The available technologies are not sufficient to clean up the aquifer,” said EPA’s John Prince, who conducted the meeting.

Almost in passing, though, he disclosed that the agency now “believes” some of the groundwater discharges into the Bound Brook, where cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls already have been discovered.

“We will be able to determine the exposure as part of the next phase, the study of the Bound Brook,” Prince said, noting the nearby stretch of the stream is posted for no swimming or fishing.

“We’re kind of surprised,” said Robert Spiegel, executive director of the Edison Wetlands Association, noting his group has been raising questions about the brook for years. “We don’t know who is essentially drinking this groundwater.”

“What we have here is a predicament with outcomes as opposed to a problem with solutions,” said Jeff Frederick of Arcadis, consulting geologist for the EPA study.

The plan can be viewed online.

The choice of monitoring as opposed to more active efforts to treat the groundwater parallels recent EPA recommendations for other heavily contaminated sites: it is cheap. The agency estimates it already has spent $133 million at Cornell-Dubilier, whose previous industrial occupants have been uncooperative.

According to the agency, installing more monitoring wells would cost another $5.7 million over 30 years, compared to as much as $128.5 million to use heat to destroy contaminants.

“You were spending that [$5.7 million] in three months when you were actually doing work,” said Rich Chapin, consulting geologist for the wetlands association.

According to Frederick and EPA officials, the fractured geology underlying the 26-acre industrial site, and a surrounding 825-acre affected zone, make it impractical to remove all the contamination, because most is trapped within the rock. Contaminants within a groundwater plume are seeking deeper the farther they travel, the officials said.

Frederick turned his presentation into an impromptu earth sciences class, bringing out soil cores, beakers, pitchers, and colored water to illustrate concepts like porosity and permeability.

Environmentalists, some involved with the site since 1996 inspections by state and federal agencies uncovered the contamination, still expressed skepticism about the explanation.

“There’s no geological reason that makes it’s impractical to treat the groundwater,” said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the state chapter of the Sierra Club. “It makes it expensive, yes, but not impossible.”

Spiegel questioned why the agency has not considered adapting hydraulic fracking, the high-pressure injection process used to release natural gas trapped in rock, substituting non-hazardous liquids for the commercial chemical mix.

Chapin said the EPA underestimates the extent of a groundwater plume from the site. While the agency may be correct that the largest mass of contamination is trapped beyond effective treatment, it has not released data to support that finding, he said.

The tepid public response stemmed in part from skepticism that the EPA announcement was timed more to clear the way for potential development than because of new data. Environmentalists noted commercial use continued even after contamination was discovered there and on some properties in the adjacent residential neighborhood.

Like many polluted properties across New Jersey, the site in the heart of the borough has a history of heavy industrial use, and major employers. One, Cornell-Dubilier Electronics, made electrical components there, particularly capacitors, from 1936 to 1962.

As part of that production, Cornell-Dubilier used materials later found to be highly hazardous. For example, the manufacture of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) was banned in the United States in 1979, after they were found to cause cancer and a range of other problems for human immune, reproductive, and nervous systems. In the meantime, though, the company disposed of countless old or broken capacitors, and their PCBs, in a pit on the site.

Another carcinogen, trichloroethylene, was widely used as an industrial degreaser during the first half of the 20th century and remains one of the most common man-made chemicals persisting in the environment.

Readily moving into water, TCE has been identified as a contaminant at more than 760 of the nation’s 1,304 Superfund sites, but concentrations at Cornell-Dubilier are extraordinary. In shallow groundwater, at a depth of 20-40 feet on the site, the levels reach 150,000 parts per billion, compared to New Jersey’s drinking water standard of 1 ppb, Frederick said. After using the solvent, company workers “poured it on the ground,” he said.

When Cornell-Dubilier relocated in 1962, the property became the Hamilton Industrial Park, whose many small tenants maintained it as an important part of the local economy. Space continued to be let even after the EPA added the property to the Superfund list in 1998.

In 2004, employees working in some of the remaining tenant firms became agitated when they learned from a reporter that the pollution was not limited to a posted area along the Bound Brook at the rear of the property, but included buildings.

The industrial park continued to operate through 2006. The former building sites have been paved over as part of the cleanup. The various companies that owned or occupied them refused to contribute to the cleanup, according to the EPA. The agency recovered some money from the original industrial owner, the Dana Corp., in a 2008 bankruptcy settlement

“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to redevelop Cornell-Dubilier,” Tittel said. “But first you need to ensure that the neighbors and the drinking water are protected from more pollution.”

The EPA will accept public comments on the plan until August 20. They can be sent to: Diego Garcia, Remedial Project Manager; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – Region 2; 290 Broadway – 19th floor, New York, NY 10007-1866; (212) 637-4947 or garcia.diego@epa.gov