By Paul Ploumis (ScrapMonster Author)
May 20, 2016 10:29:06 PM
ARLINGTON (Scrap Monster): Ringwood officials have suspended plans to build a recycling center on top of a mountain of contaminated soil at the Ford Motor Co. Superfund site until federal regulators complete an investigation of another dangerous chemical found there recently.
The decision this week by the Borough Council to halt preliminary work on the center was met with cautious optimism by residents who want all 166,000 tons of toxic paint sludge dumped by Ford 50 years ago dug up and hauled away.
The Environmental Protection Agency last year allowed the borough and Ford to move ahead with plans to build the center and a barrier placed over the site, even though the agency had originally required the pollution to be removed.
Proposed by the borough and paid for by Ford, the recycling center at the O'Connor Disposal Area and the barrier have been estimated to cost $6.9 million - $25.7 million less than it would cost to excavate the contamination.
The move upset many nearby residents who say the pollution has made them sick and caused premature death.
The borough had backed the recycling center for more than two years when The Record published articles in February about the discovery of 1,4-dioxane, a probable carcinogen, in groundwater and brooks at the site.
The news prompted residents to pack community meetings, where they renewed calls for all of the contaminated material at O'Connor to be hauled away. It also caused Ringwood officials to question whether they should move ahead with a plan that leaves the pollution on site in perpetuity.
"It is troubling to me because [1,4-dioxane] is something new after 30 years of data that has been relatively the same," Borough Manager Scott Heck said Thursday.
The site has long been known to be contaminated with benzene, arsenic and lead, among other contaminants.
While some officials recently expressed doubt on the future of the recycling center, it wasn't until Tuesday night when the Borough Council unanimously approved a resolution that suspended "any work & regarding the recycling center until a complete investigation and understanding of the source of 1,4-dioxane has been determined."
Because 1,4-dioxane was found in Park Brook, which passes by the O'Connor site, Mayor John Speer indicated that more data was needed in order to make a decision. He said checks written out to state regulators for the recycling center's permits were written weeks ago, but won't be sent anytime soon.
"We're in a position now where we could send in our checks for the permits, but we're waiting to see what happens with the groundwater," he said. "We still don't know where it's going."
Want public vote
Though pleased with the council's move, residents pushing for excavation said Thursday they would continue efforts to force a public vote in November on the recycling center proposal.
"We are encouraged by it, but it's a temporary measure," said Lisa Chiang, who is spearheading the petition drive. "Our measure is a permanent one."
Heck said he doesn't know how long it will take the EPA to conduct its investigation of 1,4-dioxane. Drinking water has not been affected in town wells or the nearby Wanaque Reservoir.
The Superfund site has had a long history of mismanagement by regulators. The EPA declared the site cleaned in 1994 after Ford had removed about 7,700 cubic yards of soil polluted with sludge generated at the company's former Mahwah plant. After a 2005 series by The Record documented widespread contamination strewn over the area, the EPA relisted the Superfund site and promised a thorough cleanup. Since then, Ford has removed more than 50,000 tons of polluted soil.
The idea of a recycling center first surfaced in September 2013, about a month before EPA was slated to issue its proposal to require a full excavation at O'Connor. Ringwood officials informed the EPA that they wanted to build a $1.5 million center on the borough-owned property just off Peters Mine Road.
The move prompted a chain reaction that did away with the excavation plan. Federal law favors Superfund sites being redeveloped into useful properties and compels the agency to consider the "most cost-effective alternative" that is also protective of human health, EPA officials have said. The agency approved the alternative plan last year, which calls for a $5.4 million cap instead of $32.6 million for excavation. The move enraged many residents, including members of the Ramapough Lenape tribe who live next to the site.
EPA officials have maintained that the discovery last year of 1,4-dioxane - even at levels 100 times the state standard - would likely not change their decision to allow O'Connor to be capped. The 1,4-dioxane would be dealt with in a separate cleanup plan that focuses on groundwater water while the O'Connor cleanup focuses on soil and other material.
EPA officials have said they would switch back to the excavation plan if the borough dropped the plans for the recycling center.
It is unclear if the council would eventually do that.
A dangerous crevice
At a meeting this month, the borough's environmental consultants argued that excavation would create a large crevice that could be dangerous and put the borough, which owns the land, at risk for lawsuits. They also reiterated Ford's argument that excavation would need about 7,400 trips by dump trucks over two years causing congestion on local roads and diesel pollution in the air.
Ringwood officials said they shouldn't be held liable for Ford's dumping.
The borough was held partly responsible in 1990 and again in 2005 when a number of factors came to light, including a 1970 letter from former Mayor John Kulik inviting Ford to dump waste on the land.
On Tuesday, the Borough Council also passed a resolution authorizing Heck to ask the EPA to exempt it from liability at O'Connor. Ringwood claims that the land was an "involuntary acquisition" by the borough resulting from a 1981 tax foreclosure.
It is unclear if that would affect signed agreements with Ford where Ringwood would pay 15 percent of the cleanup costs at O'Connor and two other portions of the site: Peter Mine and Cannon Mine. Ringwood officials have said there "was no guarantee" that the borough's insurance company would pay for the cleanup at O'Connor.