Sierra Club: DEP Rollbacks Cleanup Standards for Groundwater

For Immediate Release

April 2, 2019

Contact: Jeff Tittel, NJ Sierra Club, 609-558-9100

DEP Rollbacks Cleanup Standards for Groundwater

The DEP updated a guidance document, Capping of Volatile Contaminants for the Impact to Ground Water Pathway, that would provide a new remedial alternative/compliance option to address Impact to Ground Water (IGW) pathway. The 2019 update provides for the first time the remedial option to cap volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as Tetrachloroethene (PCE), Trichloroethene (TCE), and benzene. Many sites in New Jersey such as Pompton Lakes may be subject to capping instead of an effective cleanup plan to get rid of their contaminated groundwater.

“DEP is running away from its responsibility to clean up contaminated groundwater. Their proposed guidance rule will allow polluters to keep toxic pollution in the groundwater. This will have major impacts on the health and environment of the people of New Jersey. The department did this bait and switch through a guidance document by allowing capping contaminates like VOCs instead of cleaning up groundwater,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Last week, DEP and the Attorney General came out with a lawsuit because they want to do more enforcement but under this rule, they will let the same polluters off the hook. This will put even more people at risk. Rolling back cleanup standards is something expected from the Christie Administration, but not the Murphy Administration. The DEP is suing for more damages meanwhile they are allowing the pollution to get worse.”

Many sites in New Jersey have groundwater that is contaminated with VOCs. The recent lawsuits filed by Attorney General Grewal on DuPont will require them to cleanup contaminated sites like Pompton Lakes. For example the community of Pompton Lakes have been suffering for decades from the mess created at the Chemours/ DuPont Pompton Lakes Works Site. Ground water contaminants include volatile organic compounds which are potentially harmful contaminants that can cause vapor intrusion to indoor air.

“Last week DEP and the Attorney General went after DuPont for the mess they made in Pompton Lakes but this rule will keep contaminated groundwater in Pompton Lakes. The guidance document will allow pollution to keep spreading and get worse. It will let polluters off the hook and exempts them from having to clean up contaminated groundwater. This means polluters like DuPont will cap toxic VOCs in Pompton Lakes without cleaning up the contaminated groundwater,” said Tittel. “Mooresville who has VOCs in the drinking water coming from a contaminated site will also be impacted by DEP’s guidance. This is serious, because VOCs are a major carcinogenic compound.”

The New Jersey Sierra Club opposes the update and believes there is a legal issue in how the Department of Environmental Protection proceeded in the rule-making.

We have serious concerns because under the cleanup plan for site remediation, the program LSRP is privatized. This means that engineers that work for polluters have full authority to choose any remedy they want while DEP have no say. That means, they will look for cheaper and easier methods which results to capping the site,” said Tittel. “We believe the guidance rule violates the Metro Media case because there were no administrative procedures or rule making processes when DEP updated the guidance. New Jersey rules and regulations have always required cleaning up contaminated groundwater. The DEP is using this guidance as a way to get around the cleanup standard for groundwater which is set at a 1 in a million cancer rate.”

Commissioner McCabe said that she will allow for the current system of cleanup at sites like Pompton Lakes to be natural attenuation. Natural attenuation relies on natural processes to clean up or attenuate pollution in soil and groundwater. However, the right conditions must exist underground to clean sites properly. If not, cleanup will not be quick enough or complete enough.

“DEP’s solution for cleanup is to do nothing, they call it natural attenuation. Which means instead of actually cleaning up contaminated groundwater, they will let nature take care. Toxic chemicals will natural attenuate into our bodies and environment. There is nothing natural about leaving toxic chemicals underneath groundwater. It just won’t work. DEP’s updated guidance on capping will put the environment and our health at risk,” said Tittel. “DEP’s standard was if you have contaminated soil above a groundwater plume, you are required to clean up the contaminated groundwater. Now with the new guidance, they don’t have to do it. But capping won’t work, they leak and are not 100% impervious. This means the failed cap will leak and contaminates will get into the groundwater.”

In NJ law, capping is an “institutional control” – or a “non-permanent” “passive” remedy. Prior NJ law emphasized “permanent remedies”, i.e. complete cleanup of soil and groundwater: excavation of contaminated soils and treatment on groundwater.

“DEP and the Attorney General said they would hold polluters like DuPont accountable and take strong measures to protect residents most affected. Unfortunately, those promises will be broken because DEP’s guidance rule does the opposite. For the first time the state will not be cleaning up groundwater. This is very concerning because the EPA estimates that in New Jersey, there are 3500 contaminated sites that affect groundwater that are in sphere of drinking water wells. Even though DEP’s update may look like just a simple change, this will have huge implications to how our groundwater in New Jersey is cleaned up but also our drinking water and health,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Link to guidance document here:

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