Disappointing some residents, federal officials said it would be 2012 before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposes a clean-up plan for contaminated waterfront in the Laurence Harbor neighborhood and Sayreville.
Standing in front of fenced-off beach, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th Dist.) said cleaning the newly designated Superfund site, where lead-contaminated slag was used to build a seawall and jetties, it is "a priority... to get this done as quickly as possible."
EPA officials said they have money for further investigation, and promised to remove debris washed up by recent storms by Memorial Day. Future actions, though, depend upon the studies and perhaps legal action over anticipated costs, they said.In the meantime, contaminated areas of beach and seawall will remain closed to public access, said EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck. "We have a process in place" to do more tests to determine the extent of contamination, she said.
"It will take more time, probably more time than people like, but my view is to err on the side of caution," Enck said.
EPA officials cited enormous levels of lead in the affected area. While a safe residential standard is 400 parts per million or less, they said samples along Old Bridge's Laurence Harbor waterfront were 142,000 ppm and higher, while one in Sayreville was 198,000 ppm.
That translates into 14-20 percent lead, which can cause neurological damage, particularly in children. Tests so far have shown no problem in a playground next to the fenced off area, but additional soil samples are being taken around the area, Enck said.
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Residents said the source of the problem is well known. During the 1960s, a would-be developer used slag from National Lead Industries in Sayreville along the waterfront. Some wondered why further study is necessary.
"Cap it off, get a cement truck out here and pour every day for a year and you've got it done," said resident Ken Hixon. "You don't have to wait until 2012 to start doing something about it."
Robert Spiegel, executive director of the Edison Wetlands Association, said a cement cap would be inadequate, but agreed work should begin without delay. Environmental officials know metals continue to leach from the seawall, he said.
"Every tide that goes out, more contamination is leaching into the (Raritan) bay," Spiegel said. "They should start by removing the source of the contamination."
"When we're doing something that's going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, we have a responsibility to make sure that we do it right," said Walter Mugdan, EPA head of Superfund activities for the region.
"This waterfront is a jewel of our community," said Old Bridge Councilman Patrick Gillespie.
The township, state and Middlesex County have all invested in the area, now called Old Bridge Waterfront Park, without bringing in contaminated material, he said.
In recent years, Old Bridge contributed to the problem by dumping fill in wetlands along Margaret's Creek, included in the Superfund designation, said resident Paulette Mayers.
"After the recent storms, the water from the wetlands is up on my property," she said.
A sewer contractor offered to remove debris from the area, but was told he could not because of the Superfund designation, Mayers said. But EPA staffers discussed the situation with her and said they will try to solve the problem.
Superfund clean-ups originally were funded in part by a tax on polluting industries. In a spirit of de-regulation, Congress allowed the tax to expire in 1995. Now, taxpayers foot the bill unless the EPA can identify and secure money from private parties that contributed to contamination.
"I have no problem saying the lead came from National Lead," now a separate Superfund site, Pallone said. But "there may be legal action on that" to establish whether the company is liable for the way it was used, he said. Until then, EPA needs to move ahead on its own, he said.
Spiegel's group and the New York-New Jersey Baykeeper released a letter to Pallone and New Jersey Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, saying EPA has not done enough to publicize the high-level hazards. Fishermen continue to use the area, and others jump the fences onto the contaminated sites, they said.
Mugdan said the EPA will enlist the community in publicity efforts as hazards are identified.
"Is it kids playing in the sand? Probably yes," he said. "Is it fishermen eating the fish? Probably, yes."
EPA will follow the usual Superfund procedure of seeking volunteers for a community advisory group while continuing tests on the site, Mugdan said. Once data from new tests are analyzed, the agency will prepare a list of potential options for a clean-up plan by the end of 2011, he said.