The Fenimore Landfill in Roxbury, NJ was one of several sites that received part of the 9 million cubic yards of debris left in Hurricane Sandy’s wake. In November of 2012, almost immediately following the storm, residents of Roxbury began complaining of strong odors coming from the landfill and reporting an increase in health conditions including breathing problems. Residents and activist groups are linking this rise in health citations to the Sandy debris and are calling for testing of the landfill. Bu the NJDEP (New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection) is planning to cap the landfill this summer and refusing to run tests to find out just what’s in the landfill.
Fenimore operated as a private landfill from the 1950s-70s. It was shut down in 1979 as it did not meet new landfill regulations as a sanitary landfill (such as having a liner to prevent leachate from entering groundwater sources, etc). However, it turns out that shut down does not mean closed – closure indicates that a landfill is capped and can never reopen. This is a very costly process and consequently very few landfills are actually ever properly closed (in NJ only 88 of 814 non-operating landfills have been fully closed).
In January of 2011 a company called Strategic Environmental Partners (SEP) purchased Fenimore and later signed an agreement with the NJDEP to close the landfill and build a solar farm on top. Paradoxically, this plan required first re-opening the landfill to accept new debris, mostly C&D waste, in order to pay for the capping and closure process. Seems a little strange – re-opening landfills in order to close them – but Fenimore is not unique in this sense. Perhaps the state was particularly keen on the plan as their landfill closing fund seems to be routinely pillaged for other uses.
When Sandy struck in October of 2012 some of the storm’s debris were sent to Fenimore and soon after residents began reporting health problems and strong odors coming from the site. Community activists point to hydrogen sulfide (H2S) as the culprit. The Sandy debris likely included gypsum wallboard, which can release H2S at a faster rate when wet, which the Sandy-soaked debris certainly was. Hydrogen sulfide can cause a number of serious health concerns in people (ranging from respiratory problems to memory loss, depending on the level of exposure).
Because Fenimore is an older landfill, residential neighborhoods exist much closer to the site than would be allowed today. School athletic fields have repeatedly been closed on days when hydrogen sulfide levels are particularly high. The township even set up a website where you can get up-to-the-minute data on H2S levels around town.
Now residents and city officials want the soil tested to find out what’s making them sick; SEP wants to run the tests too as they think it will absolve them of the blame and the remediation costs they are about to be stuck with. NJDEP says testing would release more gases and further slow their closure process. SEP says NJDEP is trying to cover up evidence by capping the site as quickly as possible… who knows.
This story isn’t the first we’ve heard about disaster debris – Phil photographed debris from the tornadoes in Moore, OK last summer, and we visited some areas in the Gulf Coast where debris from the BP oil spill had been deposited. It seems that figuring out what to do with wreckage after a storm or other disaster is a continuous problem. There is always some last minute scrambling to move untold tons of debris from an affected site.