Ringwood council suspends recycling center plan pending groundwater investigation

Two Superfund-related resolutions were passed during the May 17 meeting of the Borough Council. One suspends work on the recycling center proposed for the O’Connor Disposal Area until the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can perform a full investigation of the toxic chemicals in the groundwater throughout the Superfund site. The other authorizes Borough Manager Scott Heck to apply to the EPA for an exemption from liability on the cleanup at O’Connor because the borough acquired the property long after Ford Motor Company stopped dumping paint sludge from its Mahwah production plant there.

Both resolutions were passed unanimously with all members of the council present.

The decision to halt preliminary work was met with cautious optimism by residents who want all of the remaining 183,000 cubic yards of garbage, mine tailings and sludge dug up and hauled away.

In 2015, EPA approved the borough’s plans to build the center over a permeable cap placed on top of the site, even though the agency had originally proposed the total excavation of the contamination. At that time, the cost of capping O’Connor and building the recycling center was estimated at $6.9 million, which is $25.7 million less than the total cleanup.

An agreement signed between the borough and Ford in December 2013 and amended in the spring of 2015 requires Ringwood to pay 15 percent of the cleanup costs at the three remaining “Areas of Concern” designated by the EPA: O’Connor, Peter’s Mine and Cannon Mine. The borough would also be responsible for 15 percent of the costs associated with regulatory oversight and long-term groundwater monitoring, both of which could go one for 30 years.

On Tuesday night, Mayor John Speer expressed concern that the borough’s three insurance companies might not cover their share of the cleanup. He cited the decade-old case of a small parcel of the Superfund known as SR-6, where the borough ended up having to pay to remove the solid (non-toxic) waste left behind after Ford took away the sludge.

“There’s precedent for this,” Speer said. “We’re a little $50 million town. We don’t have the wherewithal to win this battle.”

Heck said that the insurance carriers initially refused to cover claims for $472,000 associated with that aspect of the cleanup, and the borough had to file suit to get them to pay.

“The negotiations process never ends,” Heck said. “It just goes on and on.”

The borough had backed the recycling center plan for 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. The site has long been known to be contaminated with benzene, arsenic and lead, among other contaminants.

On Tuesday, Heck said that the governing body has a responsibility to be flexible in the decision-making process and to use its best judgment as new information comes to light.

“The discovery of 1,4-dioxane and the lack of information about its origin caused me to be concerned,” Heck said. “It’s something new.”

With that in mind, Heck recommended the council ask the EPA to perform a full investigation of the chemical, including its potential source. Once completed, borough officials will review the report with its environmental professionals and the public.

“Only then will the borough make a determination as to the path forward at the O’Connor Disposal Area,” he said.

Because 1,4-dioxane was found in Park Brook, less than a mile from O’Connor, 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,” Speer said. “We still don’t know where it’s going.”

Going forward

Residents pushing for excavation said Thursday they would continue efforts to force a public vote in November on the recycling center proposal, and a petition toward that effort has garnered 625 signatures to date. Petition writer Lisa Chiang said that although pleased with the council’s suspension of the recycling plan, she’s not budging in her desire to see O’Connor fully excavated.

“We are encouraged by (the resolution), but it’s a temporary measure,” she said. “Our measure is a permanent one.”

On May 20, former Ringwood Mayor Wenke Taule agreed.

“Wouldn’t it be so much better for the whole community if they would take the contamination away?” she said.

Taule isn’t convinced the council members will change their minds about the remedy, calling the resolution suspending the recycling center plan “just smoke and mirrors.”

In an April 29 letter addressed to Heck, the EPA’s Walter Mugdan said that he did not feel that the recent detection of 1,4-dioxane within the Superfund area called into question the protectiveness of the cap remedy currently for O’Connor. To date, the chemical has not been found in any of the borough’s four wells or the nearby Wanaque Reservoir.

As for the resolution to apply for an exemption from liability at O’Connor, Heck said that there is “no tangible evidence linking any toxic substances being dumped there by the borough.”

The parcel was repossessed by the borough through a tax foreclosure in 1981.

“We got this thing because someone didn’t pay their taxes,” Heck said. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

The borough was deemed a responsible party by EPA 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 at O’Connor.

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.

Councilman William Marsala said he had no problem voting in favor of Tuesday’s resolutions, while noting that many of the comments from the public during the past two council meetings added important voices to the discussion. He recognized that the council members are at times a fairly homogenous group, at least in terms of their ideas.

“People coming up with differing opinions helps us,” Marsala said. “When you have conformity, you don’t really think about all the issues.”

He recognized that some residents are unwilling to bend regarding the contamination remedies, but he asked them to be as tough on Ford and the EPA as they have with the council in order to present a more unified front.

“We’ve got to come together and find common ground,” Marsala said.

Email: stewart@northjersey.com

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