A new, partial cleanup proposal for the old American Cyanamid property in Bridgewater would treat some contaminated material on site, improve the groundwater collection system and place restrictions on future uses of the Superfund area, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In announcing the plan, the EPA scheduled a public hearing 7 p.m. March 8 at the Somerset County Vo-Tech on Vogt Drive in Bridgewater, and will accept additional comments through March 31.
After more than two decades monitoring the cleanup, the grassroots group CRISIS responded cautiously, saying it has "several concerns" about the latest proposal. "I anticipate we will ask for more extensive details," Walt Sodie, the group's executive director, said via e-mail.
The EPA approach resembles one endorsed by Pfizer, the site's current owner, and estimated to cost $204 million. That is significantly more than a "no action" option that is a standard part of Superfund reviews. But it is well below a more comprehensive $1.8 billion effort.
The proposal can be viewed here.
One of the largest and most complex Superfund sites in the state that has the most, the American Cyanamid complex along the Raritan River was the scene of extensive chemical manufacturing for a century. Although northern portions of the 575-acre property were sold off for construction of a shopping center and a ballpark more than a decade ago, the remaining 435 acres are dotted by chemical sludge lagoons, many inundated by storms over the years.
Although the site was added to the Superfund clean-up list in 1982, the new proposal does not include measures to clean up two of the sludge lagoons, which EPA plans to address separately.
CRISIS, which includes local officials as well as residents, formed in the late 1980s to fight plans to build a waste incinerator on the Cyanamid property. Over the years, it has generally supported on-site efforts by the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Protection, which led the cleanup until 2008.
But there are signs that the working relationship is fraying. In its statement on the latest proposal, CRISIS described the results of a 1998 plan adopted for previous action on the site as "a fiasco."
"It turned out the two most critical elements of that remedy," trying to break down hazardous materials by long exposure to low heat or by biological agents, "turned out to be unworkable," the statement said. It noted environmental officials acknowledged the failures only after six years of fruitless efforts.
Moreover, on Monday, Sodie complained about a "lack of transparency" by the DEP in disclosing possible off-site effects of contamination from the site. Groundwater on the property is highly contaminated with benzene. That resulted in faster corrective measures last year, when the Edison Wetlands Association discovered benzene and other hazardous materials were leaking from on-site lagoons into the river.
State reports show the river water tests at the Queen's Bridge in Bound Brook, about a mile downstream, showed excessive levels of benzene four times between 1996 and 2006. That could indicate a long-term leak, not just a 2011 incident, said Sodie, who for years has participated in project meetings with environmental and company officials.
"The information is and was available to the public" in bi-annual DEP reports on waterways, said department spokesman Larry Hajna. As a basic petrochemical found in gasoline, benzene is a common contaminant, so the levels in the river cannot be directly tied to American Cyanamid, he said.
"We don't know what the source of that was," he said.
Sodie acknowledged that could be difficult to ascertain, but questioned why DEP did not report the river benzene level directly in years of clean-up meetings on a site known to be contaminated with the carcinogen. Since the Raritan is a drinking water source, Sodie said it is "shocking" that DEP "buried and ignored" the findings, Sodie said.
The EPA does not know how long the leak lasted, said spokeswoman Bonnie Bellow. "We only became aware of it when we became of the seepage last year, and as you know, prompt efforts were taken to contain it," she said.