Trenton — Without public announcement, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has posted a list of 831 old landfills across the state that have not been properly closed, including 149 with known groundwater pollution, on its website. Despite the pollution threat these old landfills pose, the state has no apparent plans to clean them up, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Many of these sites operated prior to the passage of environmental laws and accepted a mix of hazardous and toxic wastes. Similarly, many of these dumps have no or minimal environmental controls, such as liners and leachate collection systems to protect groundwater. Many dumps lack even basic groundwater monitoring. Consequently, these long ignored sites represent a major uncontrolled threat to New Jersey ground and surface waters. For example, the 149 sites where groundwater pollution has been confirmed are spread across 19 of the state’s 21 counties.
The lists were quietly posted by DEP on July 12, 2007. This belated release follows several controversial landfill redevelopment schemes and severe criticism of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) toxic site cleanup program.
“Instead of properly closing and cleaning up these dumps, DEP is focused on redevelopment schemes,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, arguing that the stealth posting of a spread sheet on a website falls far short of adequate public notice. “Quietly posting a list is a far cry from a real landfill closure/cleanup plan backed by adequate resources and enforcement.”
Many of these landfills are currently the subject of various development proposals, including construction of hundreds of units of housing. In addition, a number of housing developments have sprung up along the perimeter of the landfills, without proper notification to purchasers or adequate cleanup and closure. In some places, methane gas has migrated into basements and drinking water wells have been contaminated.
The estimated number of “Non-Operating Landfills Having Suspected or Known Contamination” (in the jargon of DEP) has doubled in the last few years from approximately 400 identified in the 2002 DEP Solid Waste Plan to more than 830 today. The full cost for proper closure and groundwater cleanup for all of the old landfills has never been itemized but would undoubtedly run into billions of dollars.
“One of my first assignments at DEP – way back in 1987 – was preparing the ‘Statewide Landfill Closure Plan.’ That plan was finished in 1988 and has been ignored ever since,” added Wolfe, a former DEP analyst. “Even now, DEP has made absolutely no commitment to actually cleaning up these sites or to enforcing environmental and landfill closure laws.”
In a December 12, 2006 letter, PEER asked the Corzine administration to warn potentially impacted residents and conduct an investigation of the performance of the DEP landfill closure program. In a January 19, 2007 reply, Assistant Commissioner Irene Kopp assured Wolfe that DEP “has not abandoned the closure and monitoring of landfills in our state…we now have the staff to oversee the problems outlined in your letter. In the near future, we will be looking at old landfills and determining what, if any, actions should be taken at each site.” To date, however, no such decisions have emerged.
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability.