U.S. EPA Commits to More Dredging at Pompton Lake

Joe Tyrrell | December 20, 2012 | Energy & Environment
Residents and activists, waiting to hear plans for DuPont munitions plant, say EPA announcement is a start

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to expand the dredging of contaminated sediment from Pompton Lake, giving local residents and environmental groups some of what they requested almost a year ago.

But even as they praised the December 19 announcement, residents and activists cautioned that they still await a larger commitment to cleaning up chemicals from the old DuPont plant that have contaminated local soil, waterways, and air.

“My initial reaction is that this is a positive step, we’re glad the EPA listened to us,” said Lisa Riggiola of Citizens for a Clean Pompton Lakes. “But it does not address all the contamination issues.”

Operating through almost all the 20th century, the plant complex on high ground at the north end of the borough manufactured munitions, testing them onsite and discharging heavy metals and other chemicals into soil and ponds, as well as waterways running through the property and down to the lake.

Only in the 1980s did the Mayor Jack Sinsimer and other locals begin uncovering the extent of the contamination. Not until recent years did the company and environmental agencies acknowledge the existence of a “plume” of contamination running underneath about 450 homes and releasing hazardous vapors.

In the meantime, state and federal health authorities concluded that Pompton Lakes residents suffer from unusually high rates of some cancers.

Under the newly revised plan, EPA will require contractors for DuPont to remove at least 100,000 cubic yards of mercury-contaminated sediment from the delta of the Acid Brook, as well as 7,800 cubic yards from the lakeshore.

The Acid Brook, a dumping ground for wastes from the plant, had been considered remediated in the 1990s. But more recent studies found continued problems, particularly a concentration of pollution in the brook’s delta, now submerged in the lake.

The new plan follows a November 2011 EPA proposal to dredge some 68,000 cubic yards from about 26 acres of lake bottom. That was roundly criticized as insufficient, not only by residents, but also by former Gov. Jim Florio and Lois Gibbs, the Love Canal activist, who are considered the parents of the Superfund cleanup program.

In a February 27 letter to the EPA, attorneys for the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission pointed out that while the agency had cited “minimal” public health impact, the lake is part of the commission’s drinking water system.

The letter supported EPA’s decision to delay the dredging, and called for “specific studies designed to ensure that the water quality of the Pompton Lake remains suitable for use as a potable water diversion source.”

A spokesman said the commission and its attorneys are reviewing the revised plan.

In another letter, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service described the original plan as “a first step,” which appeared insufficient to halt and reverse contamination from the old plant.

In announcing the additional scope of work, the EPA did not acknowledge this opposition, but said the changes came in response to public comments. Judith Enck, the agency’s regional administer, called the sediment removal “a major step toward the recovery of the lake and the protection of people’s health.”

The EPA is making other changes to cleanup plans, according to Enck. These include restoration of soil along Lakeside Avenue, and additional studies to determine if further action is needed. But that language caused some uneasiness about a cleanup that has dragged on for 25 years, largely under state oversight, while the EPA refused to put it on the Superfund list although it meets the criteria.

“We still need to see more details,” Riggiola said. “The EPA and the Department of Energy are still doing reviews of the contamination coming off that site.”

With the EPA planning a January 13 hearing on the revised plan, Riggiola said her group wants engineering consultant Richard Chapin to review the changes before commenting in detail. Chapin previously criticized the dredging plan for ignoring “hot spots” on the Wayne side of the lake, despite requests from residents there.

Riggiola said also wants further analysis from two environmental groups that have advised residents, the Edison Wetlands Association and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Both initially concluded the new approach reflects some concessions by the EPA, but added that implementation details will decide how much more effective it is.

Over the years, cleanup efforts have been marked more by “delay and deception” than results, said Robert Spiegel of the wetlands association. The EPA should set firm deadlines for actions, and impose “significant fines” if DuPont fails to meet the targets, he said.

“This is their area of expertise,” he said of DuPont. “If they are saying they are unable to clean up the contamination, then they should buy out residents who want to leave and compensate those who want to go for the lost value of their properties.”

On his website, Bill Wolfe of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) noted that the EPA is still allowing DuPont to make some determinations critical to the course of future action, such as an ecological risk assessment.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, who has participated in hearings on the cleanup, said the job “should have been done 20 years ago.” While cleaning up the brook delta is important, “cleaning up the rest of the town is even more important,” he said.

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