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Clock ticking on Milford Superfund site

BY JOE TYRRELL
NEW JERSEY NEWSROOM

crown1When contractors for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency built a wall in 2007 to prevent more of the old Crown Vantage landfill from sliding into the Delaware River, they effectively set up a deadline to clean up the Superfund site.

Made of interlocking plastic blocks, soil and vines, the barrier "was built to last 10 years," said EPA project manager Louis DiGuardia, adding that should provide enough "time to allow it to be remediated."

The wall's remaining eight-year lifespan has taken on new significance. In six months, EPA officials expect to expand the Superfund to include the business responsible for many contents of the landfill, the defunct Curtis Speciality Papers complex just to the north.

The agency is asking residents of the town and nearby communities to serve on an advisory committee for both sites. They will be able to make recommendations on how the cleanups should proceed.

The properties are linked by history as well as proximity.

Known locally as the Riegel mill after the family who built it in 1907, the plant was Milford's largest employer from its opening until its sudden closure in June 2003. By then, it had passed through many hands, including Crown Vantage and Curtis.

For decades, the adjacent landfill in Alexandria served as the dumping ground for chemicals, fly ash, waste and debris from the mill and other industries in the area.

In the 1990s, environmental agencies removed some of the obvious problems, such as chemical drums, and installed monitoring wells. But only in the past five years have studies suggested the extent of contamination remaining in the landfill, and begun to chart the hazards at the defunct mill.

crown2The trigger came following Hurricane Ivan in September 2004. Visiting the area after floods, EPA officials saw part of the landfill collapse into the Delaware. Seven months later, it was designated for the Superfund.

Since then, "at Crown Vantage, we've concluded the sampling effort" of soil, water and air, said Alison Hess of the EPA. "Now we're waiting for the analytical results" to determine the likely costs of a comprehensive cleanup.

The agency should add the mill to its National Priorities List, the bureaucratic name for the Superfund, in September, she said. After that, investigators will conduct similar tests throughout the 73-acre property, which extends from Alexandria into Milford.

In turn, that impacts Milford's future. After the mill closed, the two towns prepared a redevelopment plan. Alexandria envisions its part of the property as a park, but Milford wants to restore its tax base with a mix of offices, light industry and a few houses.

Instead of jobs, the mill now offers a depressing welcome to Milford. Drivers headed north along the river might not notice the landfill, but it's hard to miss the rusted buildings and idle smokestacks of the mill.

A preliminary EPA report last year found much the same witch's brew of contaminants at the plant as in the landfill, a laundry list of heavy metals, volatile organic compounds and PCBs, suspected carcinogens which accumulate in tissues and are thought to cause birth defects.

"It's a big site," DiGuardia said, and while environmental federal agencies dealt with some immediate contamination problems, more need to be identified.

State and federal studies show the problems got worse after the facilities closed. Perched on a bend in the river, the small, seemingly bucolic landfill attracted hikers, bikers, kayakers, dog walkers and even picnickers, apparently oblivious to the danger, according to a 2005 study by state health and environmental officials.

Meanwhile, the EPA found salvage operations in the closed mill had exposed asbestos that had been wrapped around pipes in the complex, which borders a residential neighborhood and medical offices.

"That was legalized vandalism as far as I'm concerned," said Alexandria Mayor Harry Fuerstenberger.

"There have been some concerns raised about airborne asbestos" from the site, Hess noted.

Henry Gore of Hampton, who retired in 2001 as technical director of the mill, defended its operations. The federal Food and Drug Administration "certified us for producing products safe for food" packaging, "at least in the main mill," he said.

Gore said he was less familiar with other functions, such as maintenance and the power plant. He has volunteered to help investigators research what materials the complex used.

Fuerstenberger is happier that tests have been done at the landfill, which closed in the 1970s. The state study, done in 2004-5, found soil and water contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides and combustion by-products, as well as pockets of potentially explosive trapped gases.

"We're fairly pleased with the progress" since April 2005, when the EPA added the landfill to the Superfund list, Fuerstenberger said. With the scope of future work undetermined, though, "it's still going to be a few more years" for work to be done, he said.

Milford Mayor James Gallos also is optimistic about future work on the mill property, since "everything is pulling together" to get the Superfund designation.

Even before the economic slowdown, redevelopment was not going according to plan. Instead of mixed uses, builders proposed hundreds of homes. Local officials viewed that as a formula to increase the demand for municipal services without bringing in enough offsetting taxes.

The cleanup offers a chance to step away from the impasse, Gallos said. He noted the EPA has not ruled out giving the go-ahead to build piecemeal on uncontaminated portions of the site, once they are identified.

Once it completes studies of the mill, though, the EPA still has to negotiate for cleanup payments by the former owners and anyone else who caused contamination, the potentially responsible parties, then do the cleanup.

Under the circumstances, designating parts of the site for new development is "kind of an afterthought," DiGuardia said.

 

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