Contaminant May Have Leaked into Aquifer at Site of Planned LNG Terminal, Witness Says

At hearing, expert witness for opponent of Gloucester County project cites evidence of toxic chemical in site report
Credit: (AP Photo, File)
A tanker ship being loaded with LNG

Attorneys clashed over whether chemical contamination at the site of New Jersey’s first planned export terminal for liquefied natural gas is leaking into an aquifer adjacent to the Delaware River.

At an online hearing on the plan to build the terminal at Gibbstown in Gloucester County, an expert witness for the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network said last week he had become aware of aniline — a toxic chemical once used in the manufacture of explosives at the site — in the ground where it had the potential to contaminate an aquifer.

Peter Demicco, a hydrogeologist, said he was stunned to find a reference to the chemical’s pungent odor in the appendix of a report on geological conditions at the site, written by the consultant Aecom for Delaware River Partners, the developer.

“When I read aniline odor, I almost fell off my chair, that’s probably the best way to describe it,” he said on Wednesday, the third day of the quasi-judicial “adjudicatory hearing” being held by the Delaware River Basin Commission to debate the terminal plan. The hearing, which is not open to the press, is being conducted by video link because of the need for social distancing in the COVID-19 pandemic. It is being recorded on videos that are posted on DRBC’s website the day after each session.

Although aniline is a known contaminant at the site, it hadn’t previously been detected at the precise location where it was found by the testing company, Demicco said.

The DRBC approved dredging for the project last June but later agreed to hold the current hearing to give DRN a chance to say why the regulator should withdraw its approval. The commission has said that the decision to hold the hearing does not mean it believes its approval was in error.

Aniline, which is also used to make polyurethane foam, synthetic dyes, and agricultural chemicals, can damage hemoglobin, the red blood cells that carry oxygen in humans, if it is inhaled or touches the skin, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

At the hearing, Demicco said there was evidence in geological maps of the site that the developers drilled remediation wells into an area of soil containing the chemical, and could have caused it to leak into an aquifer, which may contribute to local drinking water.

Chemical not mentioned in main body of report

Under questioning from Mark Freed, an attorney for DRN, Demicco suggested that the authors attempted to cover up the presence of the chemical by omitting it from the main body of their report, and mentioning it only in an appendix.

“That’s something they had to have called out in the report, and they didn’t,” Demicco said. “They drilled right through something.”

He warned that the contaminated area of ground, a sandy area, has the potential to leak into lower areas such as the aquifer. “The problem is that the plume isn’t in this aquifer as far as I know; it’s in the material up above. Typically the contaminants tend to step down into lower aquifers,” he said.

But, under cross-examination by Diana Silver, an attorney for Delaware River Partners, Demicco said he didn’t know whether or where the plume would move.

“At this point, there’s insufficient information to determine where it’s going to go. If I was the one drilling well, if I hit the aniline, I probably would have stopped everything because it’s not in an area we expected,” he said. “You really don’t want to connect aquifers like that through a borehole.”

Silver pressed Demicco to acknowledge that aniline had been made or used at the site by DuPont and then by Chemours, which DuPont spun off in 2015.

“Is it your understanding that this is where DuPont and Chemours manufactured aniline?” she asked.

“Manufactured or stored,” Demicco said. “It’s very clear that it was manufactured but maybe not there.”

Old DuPont site

Critics of the terminal plan have warned of the risks of disturbing contaminated soil at the 1,900-acre Repauno site, where DuPont made dynamite and other products for more than 100 years until 1999. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists contaminants including aniline, PCBs and benzene in soil, ditches and groundwater at the site, but says human exposure to the chemicals is under control. Some toxic chemicals were removed under the federal Superfund law starting in 1990, according to the EPA.

Delaware River Partners wants to build the terminal to transship LNG and other natural gas products which would be brought by truck or rail from northeast Pennsylvania to Gibbstown where they would be loaded into ocean-going tankers for export. LNG would not be manufactured or stored at the site. The company is a unit of New Fortress Energy, which builds natural gas infrastructure for power generation in the U.S., Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean.

The LNG terminal would be part of a multi-use port facility called Gibbstown Logistics Center, which is already under construction.

Opponents say the transshipment of highly explosive LNG would threaten the safety of residents and those who live near the 175-mile route from a new liquefaction plant at Wyaslusing, Pa. to Gibbstown. They also argue that the terminal would stimulate production of fracked natural gas and offset efforts by many cities and states to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Overseas markets that would be served by the terminal were once seen as lucrative targets for the abundant supplies of American natural gas produced by the fracking revolution starting in the mid-2000s. But prices have fallen to their lowest in about two decades because of over-supply and recently by the COVID-19 pandemic. The slump has forced the cancellation or postponement of many planned LNG terminals ranging from Texas to Australia and Mozambique.

The hearing is due to resume on Monday. After it concludes, the hearing officer, John Kelly, will submit a report and recommendations to the commission, which is not required to follow the recommendations in its final decision on the Dock 2 project. There is no deadline for Kelly’s report or the commission’s decision.