July 28, 2008
High Arsenic Levels Found in Ringwood
By MARY JO LAYTON, STAFF WRITER
New tests reveal elevated levels of arsenic up to six times the safety standard at the Upper Ringwood Superfund site, a finding that has renewed debate over just how toxic the area is despite five federally supervised cleanups.
Arsenic can cause lung cancer and skin disorders, the kinds of illnesses residents have been complaining about for years.
Jon Holt, a spokesman for the Ford Motor Co., which is responsible for cleaning up the site, said the arsenic is "not an immediate threat" to the health of residents.
"Arsenic is not leaching into soils, surface waters, sediments or ground waters," concluded the engineering firm Arcadis in its work for Ford.
The soil samples were taken in the area of Peters Mine, part of the 500-acre tract Ford once used as a dumping ground.
The new findings are of concern to environmentalists because they have long feared the waste in the mountain's old iron mines poses a potential threat to the region's water supply. Vast quantities of water are underground in the labyrinth of mines, which are contaminated with industrial trash and waste paint that Ford dumped 40 years ago from its now-defunct Mahwah plant. The area is in the Highlands, a region that provides water for 5.4 million people.
"The toxic waste in the mine shaft is like a big Q-Tip that can leach into groundwater," said Robert Spiegel, executive director of Edison Wetlands Association, an environmental group.
Arcadis, however, maintains the Wanaque Reservoir has not been affected.
Holt said Arcadis determined that the arsenic was left behind from mine tailings the crushed particles that remain after minerals are harvested from rock and not from paint sludge. Iron ore was harvested from the mountain for nearly 200 years before the mines closed in the 1950s.
But residents and some environmentalists suspect the arsenic contamination is the result of the tons of paint sludge dumped in the area. Over the years, the sludge was tested by multiple sources and found to have levels of arsenic that exceeded safety standards.
"Their own study results revealed that the arsenic from the mine tailings is stable and isn't leaching into the environment," Spiegel said. "So how did it get there? When every test of sludge has revealed elevated levels of arsenic, common sense says the arsenic is the result of the paint sludge."
The Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing the findings from samples taken from sites at Peters Mine, Cannon Mine and the O'Connor dump site. More than 35,000 tons of toxic waste have been removed from the site since 2004.
"We have to do testing and sampling and figure out what's the scope of contamination," said Beth Totman, an EPA spokeswoman.
Arsenic in the soil samples ranged from 20 to 62 parts per million up to three times the safety standard, Holt said. One sample revealed an arsenic reading of 114 parts per millions, six times the safety standard.
The samples were taken from areas that had been mine-tailing disposal sites and paint sludge was later dumped on top of that, Holt said. "It wasn't a pristine site," he said.
In tests of sludge in the area, "we did not find arsenic in the paint sludge of any great quantities," Holt said. This is why Ford believes the arsenic is from mine tailings.
Yet, tests of paint sludge conducted by The Record in 2005 found arsenic levels at nine times the level considered safe. Lead, chromium, antimony a silvery white metal that can cause heart and lung problems and volatile organic compounds like xylenes and ethylbenzene also have been found.
Wayne Mann, a resident, said he is worried the EPA will rely on Ford's findings rather than conduct independent testing.
"It's a major concern," he said. "It's beyond frustrating. The EPA went by Ford's word from the beginning and they haven't learned anything from that."
Years ago, the EPA declared the site clean based on Ford's representations even while paint sludge was still visible on the site. Ford was later forced to return to continue the cleanup.
A cleanup of the industrial waste in the mines would be an enormous if not impossible challenge. Peters Mine is 2,000 feet deep and has 17 levels. Groundwater runs under it, making it impossible to dry out.
Holt said it's unlikely that industrial waste or paint sludge fell deep into the bulk of the mine because they were capped in 1965.
"Nothing went down those shafts," Holt said. "They were closed off in 1965." Prior tests conducted by Ford's engineers of water 200 to 300 feet down the shaft of Peters Mine found no problems, Holt said.
But residents and environmentalists say it's unclear how effectively those openings were capped. They said wooden pallets, copper wire, carburetors, cardboard and sludge were stuffed into the mines.
The EPA has begun fencing off the area around the O'Connor dump site. By August, Totman said, fences will also be erected around Peters Mine and Cannon Mine to keep people out of the area.
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