Feds Seeking Damages Against DuPont for Contamination in Pompton Lakes

Posted in: US Water News, Water Contamination, Water Health Effects
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A test well in a part of the DuPont facility in Pompton Lakes where defective blasting caps were detonated. (Photo credit: Chris Pedota/Staff Photographer)

Article courtesy of JAMES M. O’NEILL | November 27, 2014 | NorthJersey.com | Shared as educational material

The federal government is seeking significant damages from DuPont for decades of pollution that has contaminated soil and water on the company’s sprawling 600-acre property where the facility played a key role in making ammunition for both world wars, and in adjacent neighborhoods in Pompton Lakes.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and DuPont have reached a cooperative agreement as part of the process to determine the extent of damage to fish, wildlife and other natural resources from the pollution generated by the munitions facility, which DuPont operated from 1902 to 1994. The two sides will share information, and DuPont has agreed to pay for some of the agency’s research. “This way we can work together to achieve restoration of the damaged natural resources more quickly,” said Melissa Foster, a senior biologist with Fish and Wildlife’s New Jersey field office.

A test well in a part of the DuPont facility in Pompton Lakes where defective blasting caps were detonated.

The main gate at the DuPont facility on Cannonball Road in Pompton Lakes in August (Photo credit: record file photo)

Still, DuPont retains the right not to fund certain aspects of the investigation, in which case the agency would conduct them on its own.

The cooperative agreement doesn’t necessarily mean that DuPont and Fish and Wildlife will reach a settlement – just that they are collaborating during the information-gathering process, Foster said.

A test well in a part of the DuPont facility in Pompton Lakes where defective blasting caps were detonated.

A photo from 1943 showing the DuPont munitions plant in Pompton Lakes. (Photo credit: record file photo)

If the two sides don’t reach a settlement, then the case would be handled by the U.S. Justice Department, Foster said.

Late last year, the agency finished a preliminary assessment to see whether pollution from the |facility caused damage and whether a claim for damages was warranted. The agency concluded “there is a strong likelihood” that a claim for damages exists, but has not yet put a price tag on it. Fish and Wildlife is involved in nine active natural resource damage cases in New Jersey. Congress approved the natural resource damage and restoration program in 1980 to restore natural resources harmed by releases of hazardous or toxic chemicals. The program is designed to have the polluter, not taxpayers, pay for lost use of natural resources and restoration costs.

Contamination from the DuPont facility includes mercury, lead and other heavy metals, as well as the solvents TCE and PCE, which are likely human carcinogens. The contamination affected more than 200 areas on DuPont’s own property, and also migrated off the property by way of the Wanaque River and Acid Brook, which flow through the site. Acid Brook has deposited mercury and lead into the sediment of Pompton Lake, and the contamination has also spread beyond the lake for at least three miles down the Ramapo River.

Fish and Wildlife “should be applauded for taking action,” said Lisa Riggiola, a former borough councilwoman who lives between DuPont and the lake. Any compensation for damages, she said, “should directly benefit the community of Pompton Lakes that has suffered greatly for decades from DuPont’s historical toxic legacy.”

The agency is collecting more data to determine the extent of the natural resources that were damaged by the DuPont pollution.

Then, using economic data, the agency will quantify the value of the resources damaged by the pollution and what the cost would be to restore or replace them.

“We are working with all stakeholders on the issues at Pompton Lakes and cooperating in the collection of data to determine what, if any, natural resources have been impacted by historical site operations,” said DuPont spokesman Terry Gooding. He said company lawyers were unable to discuss the case further.

The damages that DuPont might agree to in any settlement could range from a monetary payment to the purchase or donation of land that has similar value to what had been damaged. If the actual damages make it impossible to restore the natural resources in a particular location, DuPont might also pay for habitat improvement projects elsewhere, Foster said.

“We try to pick projects that address the specific resources affected and to keep the project as close to where the impact occurred as possible,” Foster said. “The ultimate goal here is restoration of those natural resources.”

DuPont has been involved in extensive cleanup for decades, but the natural resource damages would be above and beyond what the company spends on the cleanups.

Levels of contamination related to the DuPont facility have been dramatically higher than state and federal cleanup standards allow.

For instance, concentrations of copper at a lagoon on the DuPont property were 770 times the state surface water quality criteria. In a sample taken in 1989, lead at a “shooting pond” on the property used to detonate defective blasting caps was more than a million times the state criteria.

Maximum measured mercury concentrations in Pompton Lake sediment at the mouth of Acid Brook exceeded the state wildlife criteria by a factor of more than 12,600.

DuPont has already spent tens of million of dollars on some cleanup activity over the years, but significant cleanups still need to occur. DuPont has spent years, for instance, developing plans to clean up groundwater and lake sediment that have yet to be completed.

“While we are pleased that the Fish and Wildlife Service will exact compensation for environmental damages, the long-suffering people of Pompton Lakes will still be living in a contaminated environment,” said Bill Wolfe, director of New Jersey Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, who has been a vocal environmental advocate for residents during the process to develop cleanup plans for the lake.

The DuPont site, nestled between hills, was originally chosen because the hills could contain the sound and percussive force of any accidental explosions.

Investigations into the pollution date to 1981, and DuPont has cleaned up 60 of the most seriously contaminated areas on its own property. However, about 140 areas remain polluted. In one area, the average lead concentrations are 17 times the state’s cleanup standard. The lead level in one case is 236 times the threshold.

Mercury, lead and other pollutants have migrated off the DuPont property over the years by way of Acid Brook. In the early 1990s, DuPont spent $70 million to clean up the brook and dig up contaminated soil in the back yards of more than 140 homes that line Acid Brook.

The company capped shallow water wells on properties in the adjoining neighborhood in the late 1990s. It also cleaned up parts of the Wanaque River, which had elevated levels of lead, mercury and copper.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the various cleanups with the state, is currently finalizing a plan for DuPont to dredge about 128,000 cubic yards of mercury-laced sediment — more than 10,600 dump trucks worth – from Pompton Lake. Most of the sediment would be dredged from a 36-acre area where Acid Brook flows into the lake. Two other portions of lake bottom near the shoreline would also be addressed.

The EPA and DuPont are still gathering information to determine how much contamination escaped beyond Pompton Lake for three miles down the Ramapo River, a tributary of the Passaic. In its preliminary assessment, Fish and Wildlife noted that studies of the lake have identified areas of sediment scouring, providing a possible source of contamination downstream.

A toxic form of mercury can build up in the tissue of fish and other wildlife, posing a health risk to humans who eat them. Exposure to mercury can damage nervous systems and harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs and immune system.

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