My Central Jersey: Edison residents near Dismal Swamp fear toxic contamination

EDISON — Eight families on New York Boulevard along the township portion of the Dismal Swamp said they fear their homes have been contaminated by floodwaters containing low-level toxins.

The toxins are from pesticides used to spray mosquitoes on an adjacent property owned by Chevron, whose Ortho Chemical subsidiary once operated a nearby pesticide plant along the swamp in bordering South Plainfield.

Chevron wants to put up a cyclone fence behind the residents’ homes, claiming it will prevent exposure to the toxins, as well as littering and dumping. The neighborhood is at odds over the dumping issue. Some claim it is a problem, others say they have not seen evidence of it. Most suspect the fence will be the extent of the remediation of the site and will worsen continual flooding because of collected debris.

“This is a heavily wooded area with a lot leaves,” said Rich Rizzo, who has lived on New York Boulevard since 1982. “I get 3 feet of leaves that I pile up in my backyard. Those leaves would form a barrier. If we ever got a hurricane after those leaves fell, there would be a lake here. You would have a dam. This house without the leaves gets 3 feet of water. Putting up a cyclone fence around wetlands is ridiculous.”

The residents are among more than 200 people who have signed an online petition calling on representatives and authorities to pressure Chevron to fully remediate the site. The homeowners said they also want a neutral party to test their soil to see if it was contaminated by recent floodwaters from Hurricane Irene.

Larry Ragonese, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said contamination isn’t likely because the pesticide plant, which closed in 1985, has been cleaned to regulatory standards and toxins from the mosquito spray aren’t likely to move. But contamination is possible upon direct exposure to the remnants of the mosquito spray, Ragonese said, so a fence is needed.

Ragonese said a fence would better prevent exposure than trying to remove toxins from the site. The release of the toxins in an effort to remove them would increase the likelihood of exposure, he said.

Rizzo said he is convinced that four of his pets died of cancer because they were exposed to the pesticides. Several of his neighbors’ pets also have died of cancer, he said.

The deaths of the pets led to the concern about contaminated floodwaters, said Rizzo, adding that he also is concerned that Chevron plans to put up the fence without having done a study about the impact it might have on flooding.

Ragonese said that the flooding issue would need to be addressed while Chevron pursues permits from the township to build the fence. The permit process might take a year, said Stan Luckoski, Chevron’s public affairs manager.

Luckoski said all of the residents’ concerns will be addressed at a meeting within the next month.

“We sent out a letter because we wanted to be open and transparent about what we are doing,” he said. “The fact people are concerned, we’re happy to address those concerns. The Hurricane Irene flooding that recently occurred is a new issue for us, but we’re going to address it.”

Chevron obtained part of the 12-acre property from South Plainfield in 2008 and the remainder from the township this year, when the original owner no longer could pay the taxes on it, said Robert Spiegel, executive director of the Edison Wetlands Association. Headquartered within the 1,250-acre Dismal Swamp, the environmental group has worked for more than 20 years to turn parts into a state-protected conservation area.

Spiegel said he tried to purchase the 12 acres now owned by Chevron but was denied because it is contaminated. Luckoski said he didn’t know why Chevron bought the property, but Ragonese said the conglomerate might be planning to build wells there to test for contaminants.

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