Profile: Former Mayor Battles Major Polluter in Pompton Lakes

Joe Tyrrell | September 2, 2015 | Profiles
John Sinsimer is an elected official turned novelist who’s fighting against environmental poisoning -- in real life and with printed word

John Sinsimer, one-time mayor of Pompton Lakes, first-time novelist.
Name: John Sinsimer

Who he is: One-time mayor of Pompton Lakes, first-time novelist with “The Brook.”

What sets him apart: In “The Brook,” a mayor uncovers evidence of pollution affecting his small town. As a new mayor in 1988, Sinsimer found and publicized reports documenting major chemical contamination at the DuPont munitions plant, which was Pompton Lakes’ major employer for most of the 20th century.

The setting: Few places in New Jersey have a more scenic location than Pompton Lakes, which sits in a bowl at the foot of the Ramapo Mountains, amid lakes, rivers, and streams. Few places in New Jersey have more contamination, due to decades of chemical runoff from the DuPont works, built on high ground above residential neighborhoods.

The Secret: After winning an upset victory for mayor, in early 1988, Sinsimer was looking for the Bibles the borough handed out to couples being married in municipal ceremonies. His predecessor refused to give him the keys to a locked filing cabinet in the basement, “so I finally had it drilled out.” Inside, he found the Bibles, but also found three thick reports from DuPont to the state Department of Environmental Protection about the chemical contents of “shooting ponds,” lagoons on the 570-acre plant property, which drained into waterways including the Acid Brook and Pompton Lake.

“The more I read, the more scared I got, because I realized that when I had been out campaigning, I met a lot of people with weird illnesses in those neighborhoods” below the plant, Sinsimer said.

What he did: With just two weeks remaining to seek a DEP hearing on DuPont’s plans, Sinsimer quickly had the borough file the petition. The borough council passed ordinances regulating activities ostensibly related to the cleanup plan, such as tree-cutting and soil removal. The goal was to turn the borough into “a watchdog, not a lapdog,” Sinsimer said.

What happened: In a company town, Sinsimer’s revelations made him a target. “I received death threats, things were blown up on my lawn, my tires were slashed four times — and nobody was ever arrested,” he said.

The Cleanup: The borough’s flurry of activity did prod the DEP to act. DuPont, which had already reduced operations, closed the plant in 1994. Under state oversight, DuPont had contaminated soil removed and a groundwater treatment system installed. But work progressed at a glacial pace. Not until 2008, after many residents had settled legal claims against DuPont, did the company and the DEP reveal the existence of a chemical “plume” under roughly 500 homes between the plant and Pompton Lake. Besides soil pollution, the flow releases toxic vapors.

After the state Department of Health confirmed the existence of a “cancer cluster” among residents in 2009, the EPA assumed a more active role. But although the contamination far exceeds the level required for the federal Superfund program, Gov. Chris Christie refused to sign off on its inclusion.

The Book: “I started writing in 1997 for my father, who was dying of pancreatic cancer, as a memoir of my time in office,” Sinsimer said. “But after he died, I put it aside.”

In 2010, Sinsimer retired from his computer executive job and moved to South Carolina. But he soon felt restless, and decided to pursue a long-deferred goal of teaching English. By 2012, “a lot of my friends were dying of pancreatic cancer and other exotic illnesses,” he said. “But because so many of them had moved away, the state Department of Health refused to include them in its study.”

So he began working on a database, expected to be online soon, including former residents, “to embarrass the Department of Health into doing its job,” he said. “These illnesses can take years, decades, to manifest, and the state shouldn’t pretend people who move don’t count.”

Meanwhile, Sinsimer reworked his memoir as a novel, “because nobody has ever been charged with a crime for what happened here.” Published by iUniverse, “The Brook” is available through major online booksellers.

Meeting the enemy: Shortly after Sinsimer retired, Rep. William J. Pascrell Jr. (D-9th), invited him to a meeting in Washington to discuss the situation with officials of DuPont. “One of those DuPont senior vice presidents was a former top executive of the EPA, and the other had been a senior official of the DEP,” Sinsimer said. “They got their rewards.”

Where we are now: In March, the EPA directed DuPont to expand dredging of contaminated sediment from Pompton Lake, but the company challenged the order. Meanwhile, a technical advisory committee relaxed the standards for toxic vapors, making several hundred homes “safe” without reducing the pollution.

But the biggest change is that DuPont transferred responsibility for Pompton Lakes and other heavily contaminated properties to a spinoff company, Chemours. “When I heard that, I knew I had to come here” to Pompton Lakes to support embattled residents, Sinsimer said.

He cited the example of Tronox, a similar spinoff of Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp. (now Anadarko Petroleum) of “Silkwood” notoriety. Tronox’s stock collapsed and the firm was sued by its own shareholders after they discovered the extent of the liabilities shifted from Kerr-McGee. A court eventually found the parent company liable for $5 billion of Tronox’s cleanup costs, “but in the meantime, the work was halted,” Sinsimer said. “I firmly believe that Chemours is underfunded and within two years will be bankrupt.”

Quote: “My advice to the general public is to wake up about what’s going on around you, and pay more attention to what’s affecting your health.”