Landfill Reopened for Solar Farm Stinks — Literally

Nearby residents say rotten-egg stench making families sick, driving down property values

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Developers thinking about building a solar farm on an old garbage dump may want to talk to the people in Roxbury Township first — and then they may want to reconsider.

The past November the Fenimore Landfill in Morris County was reopened as part of plan to install solar systems on the 56-acre site. Since then, it’s turned into the residents’ worst nightmare.

Rotten-egg odors wafting from the dump are causing nausea, asthma attacks, and other ailments, driving people from their homes for days at a time, depressing property values, and causing kids to miss school.

The problems surfaced when the new owner of the former landfill, a convicted felon, began trucking in construction and demolition debris last fall to level off the dump, a move necessary to install the solar arrays, according to residents and local officials, who spoke on the issue yesterday before the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.

Several lawmakers deplored the situation as “despicable.” It could, however, lead to tougher rules governing where and how solar systems are deployed on landfills and brownfields, a policy previously endorsed by both the Christie administration and the Legislature.

The issue in Roxbury has inflamed the community and led even public officials to call it a failure of government at all levels.

The committee has a bill (S-2617) pending before it, but the chairman of the panel, Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), said it might not survive a legal challenge in the courts. The bill would give the state Department of Environmental Protection the authority to shut down the dump, an effort that has failed in previous litigation in the courts.

“This is an outrageous situation, but let’s do it right,’’ Smith told a packed room in the Statehouse to discuss the issue. He pledged to move a bill by June 13, and it will address not only the Fenimore situation, but also other landfills as well.

The hearing comes a day after the state agency approved plans by PSE&G to build 42 megawatts of new solar capacity on brownfields and landfills.

Smith’s June 13 date is none too soon for residents who live near the dump.

“The stench rolls in at around 4 a.m. and 6 a.m.,” according to Debbie O’Brien. “We’re just begging you to shut it down,’’ she implored the committee.

“We cannot live like this any longer,’’ added Linda Keane, who said her son has had numerous asthma attacks since the dump was reopened.

So far, efforts to deal with the problem have not yielded any results.

“This is a situation that is confounding,’’ said Elliot Ruga, senior policy analyst for the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, saying a rogue operator has been keeping the site in service for at least eight months, despite accumulating $463,000 in fines from the DEP and another $40,000 in municipal fines. “How is this still going on today?’’

Matthew Fredericks, an attorney representing Strategic Environmental Partners, LLC, defended the company’s actions before the committee, while undergoing a tough grilling from committee members.

“These odors are not a threat to public health,’’ the lawyer told the committee, while conceding that there are spikes in concentrations of hydrogen sulfide emanating from the dump. “Whether or not it is a health hazard, the answer is ‘No’.’’

If the bill, sponsored by Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-Morris) is approved, Fredericks said it would merely shift the costs of closing the dump — estimated from $18 million to as much as $23 million — from the private sector to taxpayers.

He also told the committee that Richard Bernardi, who was convicted of conspiracy to bribe a public official, is not a member of SEP. His wife is the sole member of the LLC, Fredericks said. Richard Bernardi, however, is involved in the business, Fredericks conceded, after being questioned by lawmakers.

Smith questioned how the company could receive a license to transport waste when New Jersey has enacted a tough licensing procedure to weed criminal elements out of the solid-waste system. “It may be a breakdown of the system, among many others, he said.

To Jeff Tittel, the director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, the problems at the Roxbury dump are emblematic of a much bigger problem. For years, governors and lawmakers have systematically raided a fund — supported by fees on garbage collection — designed to close old landfills properly.

In the past decade, more than $100 million has been diverted from the so-called sanitary landfill closure fund, he said. Another $5 million is being appropriated by the Christie administration in its proposed budget plan for the next fiscal year, he added.

“For the average person, including myself, putting solar on landfills makes sense,’’ Tittel said, noting, however, that many former dumps have never been properly closed. “We end up with a problem and turning it into a nightmare,’’ he said.

Both Smith and Tittel blamed much of the problem on the DEP. “We have a DEP that is dysfunctional,’’ Smith said.