Rahway River cleanup raises concerns for towns downstream

UNION COUNTY — There are plans in the works to clean up one of the most toxic sites at the mouth of the Rahway River in Carteret, despite warnings that it could do more harm than good.

Flooding from the Rahway River has been front and center with former Cranford mayor Dan Aschenbach since 1999 when Tropical Storm Floyd hit the township with a vengeance, leaving those living adjacent to the river without a place to live once again. That began what became a long and difficult road toward finding a solution, once and for all, to the flooding problem that even state and federal officials felt was difficult at best to achieve. To say he and the mayors from towns abutting the river have come a long way since then is an understatement.

After Tropical Storm Irene hit two years ago, Aschenbach, along with the mayors from towns impacted by flooding woes, formed the Rahway River Watershed Storm Advisory Board. The board, comprised of local engineers, environmental experts and elected officials, has continued to work steadily towards their goal, meeting with state and federal officials to come up with better storm water management practices.

While their efforts have seen stops, starts and disappointments, in recent months there appeared to be solutions on the horizon that would segregate storm water so it did not careen down the Rahway River, spilling over the banks and destroying homes in its path. Now those efforts are in jeopardy because of a project the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection approved.

At 5 p.m. the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, the DEP quietly issued conditional permits for this project that in Aschenbach’s opinion are likely to cause flooding consequences for the towns along the Rahway River. Recently, Aschenbach questioned the move, which will allow the use of more than a million tons of contaminated soil to create a cap on a site that floods regularly.

The former mayor admitted last week he is confused by the DEP’s approval, especially because the move will create more flooding, not less.

“The six lagoons are an average of 15 acres and surrounded by earthen berms that are not reinforced,” the former mayor said, adding that as the project is proposed it will import contaminated soil, which a company named Soil Safe will mix with kiln dust and pile on top of the berms. This will create the cap on 90 acres of sludge lagoons at the former American Cyanamid landfill on the river in Carteret. Aschenbach thinks this is a disaster waiting to happen.

“Not only would 90 acres of flood plain be filled with contaminated materials, but it would be done in such a way as to expose these materials to flood waters for long periods in the process,” he explained, noting “this could create a wing dam that would have potentially disastrous flooding implications for upstream municipalities.”
Aschenbach said he was made aware of DEP internal staff reviews that raised multiple concerns about the stability of the berms that are expected to hold the weight of more than a million tons of contaminated soil. He said this “raised the specter” of some future environmental nightmare in which 29 feet of contaminated soil, and the sludge beneath, collapsing into the river.

This, he said, boggled his mind, considering the consequences to the towns along the Rahway River who have struggled to find solutions to their flooding problems. Now, on top of flooding, residents of these towns, he added, have to worry about contaminants getting into their homes during a flood.
“Yet the project proceeded through DEP’s permitting process without these concerns being addressed,” the former Cranford mayor said, confused over how this could possibly have happened.

The advisory committee did ask the DEP to seriously take into consideration the concerns the board brought forth, but never heard from the state agency. In the meantime, the DEP issued permits to Soil Safe and never asked that any evaluations of the flood impact to towns be undertaken.

“If filling in this flood plain causes upstream destruction, who will compensate these communities?” Aschenbach asked, adding that while he and the board received no response from the DEP, environmentalists have spoken out on the issue. Bob Spiegel of Edison Wetlands Association predicted the move was going to be “an environmental disaster.” Still others, some from the DEP who preferred their identities not be known, also had a problem with such an endeavor.
In 2013 there were two separate DEP internal reports warning the project might force contaminants into other areas. In March another report surfaced noting that the contaminants would likely result in a discharge into the Rahway River.

Concerns have also been raised about Carteret receiving tipping fees for every ton of contaminated soil brought in.
According to one source in the DEP, Democrat State Senate President Stephen Sweeney attended one DEP meeting during the permitting process and had staff members attend the balance of meetings for two other projects Soil Safe is undertaking in South Jersey.

At a dead end in seeking help, Aschenbach embarked on a letter writing campaign opposing the project, inviting municipal officials and people who live and work in the watershed area to write to DEP Commissioner Robert Martin and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to express their concerns.
“The environmental impacts of the Rahway Arch project appear to be serious and the flooding concerns cannot be taken for granted. We have regulatory bodies in place to protect citizens. Given what we have gone through, assurances are what is being asked,” Aschenbach told LocalSource.
Calls to the DEP and Soil Safe were not returned by press time.