towns balking at cost of Superfund cleanup costs

towns feel unfairly burdened by settlement

For decades, starting back in the 1940s, garbage trucks servicing parts of northern New Jersey rumbled into the landfill to dump household trash and industrial waste. The landfill had been a disposal site for many of the area’s corporations and most surrounding towns from the 1940s until 1981, when it was closed and became a federal Superfund site due to soil and groundwater contamination with pollutants such as benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and chlorethane.

A cleanup has been under way for decades, with a total cost estimated at upwards of $100 million. After the landfill was closed, trash trucks were gone, only to be replaced by soil-hauling trucks involved in the extensive environmental remediation. Now, there’s a $100 million lawsuit settlement under way over the cleanup that would require hundreds of users of the dump to share in the costs of the remediation, in order to reimburse the state and federal governments. The settlement is as much about the future as it is about the past. The pact also would raise funds to pay for the cleanup for the next 30 years.

However, Chester and Washington townships, which have borne the brunt of having a landfill/Superfund site, are balking at the pact, because it would require each town to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars as their share of the settlement. Short and Chester Township Mayor Bill Cogger say enough is enough. “We were on the western front (of New Jersey landfills) since the 1940s,” Short said. “We’ve been putting up with this anguish and grief for decades. We’ve paid our dues. It doesn’t seem fair to make us pay.”

But the towns also are balking at the possibility of losing out on future revenue from the landfill, should it ever be sold years from now for some sort of development. There’s a precedent for landfills having new life. After the former Combe Fill North landfill in Mount Olive was cleaned up, it went from pariah to hot real estate. In 2006, Mount Olive had foreclosed on it and sold the landfill site for $10 million to real-estate giant the Rockefeller Group, the same developer of the International Trade Zone center in Mount Olive. Now, with Combe Fill South, the state DEP has put a $2 million Spill Act lien on that landfill, and the federal EPA is expected to place its own Superfund lien on the land, so that if it ever ends up foreclosed or sold, the liens would have to first be paid, said Rick Engel and Mary Ellen Halloran, who are attorneys with the state Attorney General’s Office handling the settlement.

Once the Combe Fill South cleanup is done, Chester and Washington, which have their own liens on the site, could try to foreclose on it and sell it to recoup their own losses, as Mount Olive had done. While the government liens take precedence, the DEP and EPA are trying to work out an agreement with the towns over any possible future proceeds, Halloran said. “The folks in Chester and Washington are eyeing that (potential future) windfall (from a landfill sale), and the EPA and DEP are eyeing that windfall,” Halloran said. Cogger said, “We were told if we didn’t agree to the settlement, they would put a Superfund lien on it (and) unless we agree to give up any tax revenues and proceeds from any sale in the future.”

While future development of the landfill is only a hypothetical possibility at this point, the subject has become a bone of contention in the settlement. U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas, sitting in Newark, has issued an order for officials from the two towns and federal officials to appear at a hearing on Jan. 29 to discuss each party’s respective lien rights in connection with any proceeds from future site development. Ultimately, both mayors concede they may have little choice but to go along with the settlement, because to do otherwise could leave the towns left as the only remaining defendants in the lawsuit, and thus entirely liable. “If push comes to shove, I may have to agree to protect the town, but it’s a travesty,” Cogger said.

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