Maggy Donaldson

Pompton Lakes community fears DuPont could shirk toxic cleanup

Munitions plant that polluted New Jersey town for decades is passing the cleanup to spinoff company Chemours

POMPTON LAKES, N.J. — As a child, Tina Marsh wiled away long summer days as many children do — riding bikes, fishing and swimming in local lakes and streams.

But her idyllic childhood ended with a cervical cancer diagnosis at 17. She believes her cancer was caused by growing up in a neighborhood plagued by pollution, dipping in waters and breathing in air laced with a dangerous cocktail of chemicals.

Marsh’s neighborhood in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, was adjacent to a DuPont munitions plant — a village built by the company for employees and their families. Her father worked at the DuPont plant for 28 years.

The manufacturing and waste management practices caused toxic seepage into the soil, air and groundwater of the nearly 600-acre site and its vicinity. More than two decades after the plant shut down, site cleanup efforts have started and stalled, and significant contamination remains in the town, home to about 11,000 people.

Marsh’s story is common among those who grew up in Pompton Lakes. Central nervous conditions and behavioral disorders affect her family members, from her parents to her great-nieces and -nephews. A New Jersey Department of Health study indicates abnormally high rates of numerous cancers in the borough, especially kidney cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. An ongoing state health department survey with public data from 1979 to 2008 indicates that women in Pompton Lakes are hospitalized for tumorous cancers nearly 40 percent more frequently than those in neighboring communities and the borough’s men are hospitalized 23 percent more often than elsewhere in the state.

She lives with chronic insomnia and a host of other medical issues that she said have kept her unemployed for years. She said her doctor attributes her fragile health to the contamination.

“Pompton Lakes was a wonderful place to grow up in. Everybody knew everybody. It was so safe,” Marsh said. “But as time went on, problems like miscarriages and cancer started cropping up. Now you never know what’s around the corner.”

And DuPont’s latest move has borough residents especially unnerved. The corporation announced earlier this month that a new spinoff company would assume DuPont’s environmental liabilities for 190 contaminated sites throughout the country, including Pompton Lakes.

The new company, Chemours, will take on nearly $300 million in environmental remediation obligations held by DuPont. In its December SEC filing, the company said that figure could rise several times higher, as “considerable uncertainty exists with respect to these costs.” The estimated cleanup cost in Pompton Lakes is about $87 million, according to that SEC report.

Chemours assured stockholders that the transfer of environmental risk would not negatively affect company finances. Along with the environmental baggage, Chemours will own DuPont’s multibillion-dollar titanium and fluoroproducts units. DuPont leads in global profits for both industries, but the ventures are subject to market volatility and significant competition.

‘Pompton Lakes was a wonderful place to grow up in. Everybody knew everybody. It was so safe. But as time went on, problems like miscarriages and cancer started cropping up. Now you never know what’s around the corner.’

Tina Marsh

resident, Pompton Lakes

Some Pompton Lakes residents worry the spinoff could be DuPont’s strategy to shirk full responsibility for the pollution in their community. These fears are grounded somewhat in historical precedent: In 2005 the energy company Kerr-McGee spun off the subsidiary Tronox, unloading its environmental issues without allocating sufficient assets to the new company. The case ended with Tronox’s bankruptcy and the largest environmental cash settlement ever, with plaintiffs receiving $5.15 billion.

However, Walter Mugdan, who directs the Environmental Protection Agency’s remediation response division in New Jersey and New York, said that DuPont’s intentions appear authentic.

“If two years from now Chemours goes bankrupt, we would look back to this transaction now and see if it was done on the up and up,” he said. “I have no reason to believe that there is any fraud going on.”

In a company statement, DuPont representative Robin Ollis Stemple wrote that “Chemours and DuPont remain committed to fulfilling all remedial and redevelopment activities.” Those activities have thus far included cleaning soil contaminated with lead and mercury along the Acid Brook, a stream that runs through more than 100 homes’ backyards, as well as a pond where the company detonated blasting caps. At least two-thirds of the identified contaminated zones still require remediation; in one spot the lead level is reportedly at least 236 times higher than New Jersey’s cleanup standard.

DuPont has paid to install vapor mitigation systems in some homes above a groundwater plume that emits vapors from the chlorinated solvents trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE), both classified as potential carcinogens by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those machines reduce vapor emissions in homes but do not target the plume itself.

Ongoing debates have hindered plans to dredge Pompton Lake sediment tainted with lead and mercury, heavy metals that can cause birth defects as well as nervous, digestive and immune system disorders. The EPA had finalized a permit plan in 2012 that required DuPont to clean that contamination, but the company appealed the proposal, asserting that the cleanup zone was larger than necessary. Talks broke down, prompting the EPA to withdraw the permit last May for revisions. 

“These sites take longer to clean up than anyone wants them to,” said EPA Community Involvement Coordinator Pat Seppi. “Unfortunately, this site can take a couple of decades or more. That’s not the kind of progress anybody wants, but that’s just how these programs have evolved.”

‘Chemours and DuPont remain committed to fulfilling all remedial and redevelopment activities.’

Robin Ollis Stemple

spokeswoman, DuPont

Exasperated by what they see as sluggish remediation, some say the borough’s environmental officer, Ed Merrill, is too soft on DuPont, allowing the company to drag its feet on cleanup efforts. DuPont funds Merrill’s position, which he has held for 24 years. As part of a resolution between DuPont and Pompton Lakes, DuPont provides “consulting and regulatory compliance services” to the borough, which includes the environmental officer’s salary, currently just under $60,000 a year. Merrill declined to comment.

Government officials from the EPA and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) say corporate funding of Merrill’s income is standard protocol and that responsible parties normally reimburse government agencies for costs associated with remediation efforts, including payroll expenditures. “Who’s paying the salary? That’s not even a concern of mine,” said Perry Katz, the EPA remedial project manager for Pompton Lakes. “These people are township employees.”

But others are less trusting. “Ed Merrill just takes DuPont’s money and is a mouthpiece for DuPont,” said Jeff Tittel, the New Jersey director for environmental nonprofit group Sierra Club. “It’s the ultimate green scam conflict of interest … He’s been on the anti-environmental side of almost every issue up there.”

DuPont operated in Pompton Lakes from 1902 to 1994. The DEP called on the company to investigate the site in the early ’80s, and DuPont tests revealed heavy pollution. Throughout the early ’90s, DuPont remediated the lead- and mercury-contaminated soil of 137 residential homes along Acid Brook, which runs from the plant site to Pompton Lake. In 1998 the company installed a pump-and-treat system that drew up groundwater, decontaminated it and released it back underground.

But substantial toxic contamination remains in the soil, air and waterways, both on and off the former plant site. Site monitoring in the 1980s revealed that high levels of probable carcinogens were vaporizing from shallow groundwater, creating a plume of toxic chemicals under at least 450 homes. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry linked the released chemicals to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukemia, among many other cancers, as well as neurobehavioral deficits.

On the basis of its tests conducted at that time, DuPont did not consider the plume threatening. But a confidential DEP timeline obtained by the Edison Wetlands Association in an Open Public Records Act file review shows that the DEP and EPA told DuPont as early as 2001 that the vapor intrusion needed to be addressed.

Joe Intintola and his wife moved into a rental home in the former DuPont Village in 2003. They inquired about potential contamination with their landlord, who assured them the property was safe. They bought the home in 2006.

But in 2008, new tests showed that TCE and PCE were leaching from the plume into hundreds of homes, including the Intintolas’. Later that year, he was diagnosed with terminal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

As the pollution and its accompanying problems surfaced, residents buffeted DuPont with lawsuits. In 1993 more than 400 current and former residents sued DuPont for property damage and personal injury, settling for a collective $38.5 million. A 1998 suit saw 500 plaintiffs sue on similar grounds, settling in 2004 for individual payments of $950 along with up to $600 in annual reimbursements for medical test expenses. In both those settlements, residents signed liability releases, surrendering rights to pursue future contamination-related claims against DuPont.

After the dangers of the vapor intrusion became clear, 113 of the plaintiffs from the 2004 settlement filed additional complaints against DuPont in 2010. But because they had signed liability waivers, a federal judge dismissed their claims.

The DEP and EPA co-manage the polluted site under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Both agencies say current cleanup efforts are sufficient under the act — a view DuPont echoes. But many borough residents feel that progress is lagging and that adding Pompton Lakes to the federal Superfund national priority list would allow for improved oversight and increased public input.

The site more than qualifies for Superfund designation. In 1982 the EPA conducted confidential tests to analyze toxicity and establish the site’s hazard ranking score, which determines Superfund eligibility. For a site to qualify, it must score at least 28.5. Pompton Lakes’ score hit the upper 60s.

Pompton Lakes still faces myriad environmental problems.
Maggy Donaldson

Cheryl Rubino grew up in Pompton Lakes above the plume and returns frequently to care for her mother, who has dementia and still lives in their family home. Rubino’s mother worked for years next to the contaminated Pompton Lake at Lakeside Middle School, a job she took after losing her husband to a rare spinal cancer in 1985. Rubino has become one of the borough’s leading environmental activists.

She said she spoke with Gov. Chris Christie in 2012 about the challenges at Pompton Lakes. She said he told her he would work to add the site to the Superfund list after that year’s elections. But in the lead-up to his 2013 re-election campaign the following spring, he wrote a letter to Rubino saying, “While I understand that you wish to have the site listed as a Superfund, the best course of action at this time is to continue with the current remedial activities.”

His response outraged both Rubino and another borough environmental activist, Lisa Riggiola, a former Pompton Lakes councilwoman. “For an elected official to make a promise face to face and not deliver it? It makes you wonder what’s involved,” Riggiola said. Christie’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Some in Pompton Lakes worry that Superfund status would stigmatize the borough, scaring away potential developers and new residents. The Business Improvement District, an organization that counts DuPont among its top members, has spoken against Superfund designation for those reasons. But Riggiola said development concerns pale compared with the risks posed by the contamination.

“Politics should not have any place in a situation when people’s lives are at risk,” she said. “This disgusting little Pleasantville facade is about that.”

Many in the borough feel trapped, unable to sell their homes when they inform potential buyers of the contamination. Homeowners have repeatedly called for DuPont to buy out properties or guarantee home values.

For now, these hopes remain pipe dreams, with residents just waiting to see what Chemours has in store.

Marsh said it’s not really about money. “I wonder what my life would’ve been,” she said. “I’d give up every damn penny to live normal.”

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