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RED BANK: AFTER LOST DECADE, TOXIC CLEANUP IS “EMERGENCY”

A westerly view from the contaminated landfill site.  (Photo by Brian Donohue. Click to enlarge.)

By BRIAN DONOHUE

It’s the largest plot of undeveloped land in Red Bank: 10 acres of thick brush, trees and deer paths littered with trash. It boasts wide waterfront views of sunsets and wildlife, like foxes and bald eagles.

And for more than two decades after plans were first hatched to clean up contamination and turn it into a park, the town’s former landfill and incinerator site on the shore of the Swimming River has sat largely untouched, sending toxins into the groundwater and promises up in smoke.

The cleanup is so behind schedule that a year after a May, 2023 New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection deadline for the lengthy remediation to be finished, the borough still has not yet even started.

When this sign was erected in 2014, borough officials estimated the remediation would be done in a decade. It has not yet started. (Photo by Brian Donohue. Click to enlarge.)

“There were more pressing issues, and I guess Sunset Park was never that pressing or wasn’t that important of an emergency for the borough to kind of handle at the time,’’ borough Director of Community Development Shawna Ebanks told redbankgreen last week. “Something like this can easily get pushed under.”

The factors behind the project’s lost decade are many. 

Administrations came and went with priorities shifting and engineering companies like T&M and CME Associates hired and fired, then hired again, their experts taking their knowledge with them when they left.

Political squabbles among the borough council paralyzed work on projects large and small. 

And the lack of any perceived imminent health threat or concerns, including tests showing the contaminants are not spreading beyond the site, coupled with the its isolated location, made it easy for officials and citizens to ignore.

“Because it’s so tucked away too, that’s another reason why,” Ebanks said.  “It definitely is forgotten about.”

The state DEP has not forgotten.

The borough has paid more than $100,000 for missing the 2023 deadline and other benchmarks over the years, records show. 

The town recently applied to the state for an extension of the deadline to May, 2029, and is working with a thus far sympathetic DEP to avoid more fines, according to borough Administrator Jim Gant.

But the cleanup, Ebanks now says, “is becoming an emergency.”

And so, in the past several months, borough officials, along with the mayor and council, have taken several actions to jump start the project:

  • In March, the council allocated $217,000 in grant money from the DEP’s Hazardous Discharge Site Remediation Fund to pay for another round testing at the site.
  • In April, the council approved a borough partnership with the Monmouth Conservation Foundation, a nonprofit that helps town convert land into open space. The foundation has received an anonymous $2 million donation for the project and yesterday announced another $500,000 in federal infrastructure funds for the cleanup.
  • The borough is also preparing applications for a large grant from the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection that could cover another chunk of the what the 2023 borough Master Plan calls an estimated $20 million price tag for the project. 

Much of the funding, including the private donations and public grants, is contingent upon the land being set aside as open space once remediation is complete. While some neighborhood residents have objected to that use, capping it and leaving it undeveloped would like leave the borough footing the entire price tag.

“If it’s not desirable for some, I think the greater good is that the funding is there if we make it for public use,” Gant said. “So how can we best cash in on that?”

While earlier design discussions have included elements like a soccer field, talk has shifted over the past year to building more passive recreation space. Designs may be dictated by the fact that the cleanup will likely require significant amount of “hardscape” and a bulkhead along the riverbank to prevent seepage of contaminants into the water, Ebanks said.

“I think there’s a difference between developing, putting sports and recreational fields and doing everything else, and creating a passive space,’’ Deputy Mayor Kate Triggiano said during a recent council meeting.

Regardless of what plan takes shape, the first goal is to clean it up. 

“We’re full steam ahead on this, because it’s an obligation that has not been met for years and years and years” said Gant, who was hired in November. “We have to do this. And we owe it to the residents to do it.”

The site was used by the borough to burn and bury trash for decades until it was closed in the mid-1980’s.

Soil tests first taken in 2006 found concentrations of metals, including antimony, arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury and zinc, above state-mandated cleanup levels.

Groundwater tests showed elevated levels of arsenic, lead, manganese and sodium, according to a 2016 report.

That 2016 engineering report said a combination of excavating soil from one contamination “hot spot”  and covering the land with two feet of clean fill “will eliminate exposure to contaminants.” At a stakeholder meeting with local residents in 2014, members of the borough council predicted the project would be completed in five to ten years.

But after a detailed remediation report and public input sessions in 2017, it appears to have completely stalled. 

Records show that since 2014 the project has had five different project managers, known as Licensed Site Remediation Professionals (LSRP), a number several experts called an extremely high rate turnover. One person listed on state documents as being the project LSRP for nine months in 2013, William Matulewicz, told redbankgreen he didn’t recall ever having the project in his caseload.

Rohan Tadas, who served as the project’s LSRP from 2014 to 2017 said the state LSRP program was specifically designed to make sure there’s one person in charge of seeing cleanups through the long process.

“This is like hiring an attorney, there’s a lot of institutional knowledge each attorney has on a case or a project,” said Tadas.  “It’s the same with LSRPs. And so you lose a lot of that when you transition people.”

Those delays have caused even more delays. 

The latest round of planned testing is required because the last round of data have become outdated, officials say. Ebanks called the borough “fortunate” the state has not levied heavier fees or penalties for missing the cleanup deadline. Right now, the borough is paying $19,000 a year. 

The state is not the only one trying to nudge the borough to act. 

Referring to the anonymous donor who gave $2 million for the site to be converted to public open space, Ebanks said, “they’re becoming impatient with us.”

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