Final Report-MT

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: How the Public Awareness of Contamination Affected Cleanup Efforts in the Pohatcong Valley Groundwater Superfund Site from 1978 to 2020

By Matthew Trochim

Introduction

When residents of Greenwich Township woke up in March 2003 they didn’t expect anything to be different. The day seemed normal, the air was chilly and the sun was shining over the recently built suburban development in Warren County, New Jersey. People like Bonnie Trochim, mother of five young children and a local homeowner, went about their morning like any other. They brushed their teeth, showered, brewed coffee, and fixed breakfast, all using water drawn from private wells on each individual property. Checking the mail they received a startling revelation. “Notification of Well Contamination” in bold text at the head of a letter from the local health authority, and they just used the water and gave it to their children.[1]

This letter was the first indication that anything was wrong to the residents of Greenwich township, although the contamination had been known about by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as far as 1978.[2] Greenwich wasn’t the only community located within the contamination zone. The entire contaminated zone is known as the Pohatcong Valley Superfund Site and contains the communities of Greenwich Township, Franklin Township, Washington Township, and Washington Borough. None of these communities received much information from health authorities following the discovery of the contamination. As it turned out, this lack of communication would become a theme between the communities and the authorities who were supposed to be protecting them.

For nearly 25 years health authorities dawdled, with minimal effort expended beyond what was absolutely necessary. The general public was largely left out of official decision making and proceedings. This led to their concerns being ignored, with authorities tending to favor the option that was easy or expedient. It wasn’t until after the public learned about the contamination that effective cleanup efforts began in many of the affected communities throughout the site. Public awareness gave the people a voice through which they could influence the decision making process and hold authorities to account. In this way, public awareness of the contamination was pivotal in protecting the communities.

Proceeding through the events chronologically helps illuminate the relationship between work done at the site and the awareness over time that the public had. Looking at the actions of the authorities between the years 1978 and 2002 will help demonstrate the lack of action and communication that led to the communities being placed at a disadvantage. The year 2002 is important because that was the year the State of New Jersey passed legislation that allowed local health authorities to notify homeowners of well contamination, hence the letter from the opening. By examining this law, among other things, we will see how the communities came to be aware of the contamination under their feet. Then we will examine how the increase of public awareness came to influence how the contamination was dealt with after 2002. By comparing how the contamination was treated before and after the community was aware of the situation it will be demonstrated how the community having more awareness of the contamination at the site contributed to the increased effectiveness of programs designed to protect the community.

Background to the Pohatcong Valley Superfund Site

In order to comprehend the problem, we first need to understand the broader context of the community, contamination, and agencies tasked with the cleanup. Looking at each of these items in turn, we will first look at the communities themselves. Briefly mentioned were the communities of Greenwich, Franklin, Washington Township, and Washington Borough. Taken together these communities have a population of about 20,000, comprising an area of about 15 square miles. The large size of the site led to the EPA splitting the site into three operable units (OUs) with different teams dedicated to researching and working in each OU. OU1 primarily contains Washington Township, parts of Franklin Township, and parts of Washington Borough. OU2 contains the rest of Franklin Township and Greenwich Township. OU3 comprises specific parts of Washington Borough.[3]

Underneath these communities lies the contaminated Kittatinny Aquifer, which provided the drinking water for many private wells and some public water supplies. The contamination came from several sources and is largely made up of two chemicals as a result. The first contaminant is trichloroethylene (TCE), the release of which the EPA traced back to a location formerly owned by a company known as American National Can. The second contaminant is perchloroethylene (PCE) and is largely the responsibility of a now defunct business, Tung Sol Tubing.[4]

Three main agencies have been involved in the cleanup, all involved at different levels of government. On the local level we have the Warren County Health Department, on the state level there’s the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), and on the federal level we have the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), all of whom have different jobs and have had different impacts on the site over the years.

Pre-Public Awareness (1978-2002)

First we need to look deeper into how the contamination and site in general was treated by the authorities before the communities got involved. The contamination was discovered in 1978 by testing public supply wells. It’s worth noting that the contamination was discovered through testing of public water supplies that were already regulated by clean water legislation. Meaning that the contamination likely would have remained undiscovered had more people in the area been using private wells.

Early projects by the EPA and other authorities didn’t address the root of the problem, they only treated the symptoms. Their projects included sealing contaminated wells and connecting impacted residences and businesses to public water supplies, presumably clean ones. This work was completed in 1989, ten years after the contamination was first discovered.[5] Prior to the 2000s this was the only real project conducted by the EPA besides monitoring contaminant levels. Of course sealing wells didn’t remove the contamination from the water, meaning this project didn’t actually address the problem of contaminated water, it kicked it down the road to be dealt with later.

The reason for this delay was that the community had no input in the decision making process. The authorities had no easy mechanism for communicating directly with the public during this time period and so they were largely ignored when it came time to make plans. The authorities themselves would likely explain this away by saying they were being cautious and didn’t want to act rashly in response to the problem, but even with that explanation we are forced to accept that members of the community were at risk for years before even the earliest projects were completed.[6]

Throughout this time period there were many things the community wasn’t being told. For example, in an interview conducted with my mother, Bonnie Trochim, she mentions how she had been living in the site since 1992 and didn’t even know about the contamination until 2003 from the letter mentioned in the introduction. Later in the interview she mentioned how getting information out of the authorities has always been difficult. She mentioned never quite knowing who to contact, where the layers of authorities led to a situation where representatives of any health or environmental authority were reluctant to give information, either because they didn’t have it or they didn’t want to contradict something another organization was doing. Added on top of this it was always her that had to go looking, the authorities were almost never forthcoming with information.

Interview conducted with Greenwich Township resident Bonnie Trochim where we discuss her personal experience living in the Pohatcong Valley Superfund Site

After learning about the contamination, Bonnie Trochim was more active than most in keeping up to date with the happenings of the site and the contaminant levels in her water. She explains her concern like this, she moved out here to provide a good home for her young children and certainly didn’t want something as simple as the water to be harming them. According to her estimation, many other members of the community either must not have known about or weren’t concerned with the contamination. She believes this was because since it was groundwater that people couldn’t see, they could ignore the problem. I would add to her thoughts, the invisible nature of the contamination coupled with the lack of communication from the authorities led to the situation where the problem was forgotten by the community for many years.[7]

The large size of the site, along with the diverse nature of the contaminants likely amplified this concern. Since the sight was split into three different OUs it was difficult for members of the community to get the full picture. The extent of the problem might seem obvious when looking from a bird’s eye view, especially with the benefit of hindsight, but members of the community were forced to work with incomplete information for many years. This was because there was no clear line of communication between health authorities and the public. Outreach by the authorities was the only way the public could be informed about the nature of the contamination or of what was being done to protect the communities. Looking through the EPA’s own records about the site reveals there was almost no communication directed at the public before the 2000s, the main type of communication appears to be technical documents intended for use by government agencies.[8]

People knew about the contamination in the early years, after all there were people immediately affected by it. As previously discussed, the EPA conducted a ten year program of constructing public water lines. So then why did the public lapse back into ignorance after that project. It could have been because they thought the problem was dealt with, given the lack of information from the authorities this would have been a reasonable assumption to make. Remember that this isn’t a glowing wasteland or a lake filled with green radioactive water, TCE and PCE are invisible and odorless. It could have been that they just didn’t know the true extent of the problem because of the complex nature of the site. So then why did the communities lapse back into ignorance? Again I will use the ideas of Bonnie Trochim, it’s much easier to forget about a problem that you can’t see.[9]

The Turning Point

The community was left in the dark about the contamination for 20 years before they learned about the real extent of the contamination. In the previous section it was discussed how there was no clear line of communication between any health authority and members of the community. This changed in several ways in the early 2000s. The largest and most substantial of these changes came in the form of legislation.

Passed in the year 2001 and taking effect in the year 2002 a law commonly known as the Private Well Testing Act was responsible for many people in these communities becoming aware of the contamination. The main focus of this law is in regulating the sale and use of properties containing a private well. It stipulates that in order to close the sale of a property containing a private well the well must be tested for contaminants and both parties must state in writing that they received and reviewed the test. Additionally, should contamination be found the lab that conducted the test must notify the local health authority, the Warren County Health Department in this case, and the law gives said authority the right to notify the public surrounding the property where the contamination was found. Remembering that much of the drinking water within the bounds of the site was obtained through the use of private wells, this law had a large effect on the awareness the public had regarding the contamination.[10]

A closer look at the law itself helps to demonstrate why exactly it had such a profound effect on the community. The law is explicit in stating the order of operations should any contaminant be found. “The laboratory, within five business days after completion of the water test, shall also submit the water test results to the Department of Environmental Protection”, the NJDEP.[11] The NJDEP must then, within 5 business days, “provide notice thereof to the county health department, health agency, or designated health officer, as appropriate to each county in which the private well that failed the water test is located”, the Warren County Health Department in the case of the Pohatcong Valley Superfund Site.[12] Following this, “The county health department, health agency, or designated health officer, as appropriate to each county, may issue a general notice to owners of real property served by private wells located in the vicinity of the real property experiencing the water test failure”.[13] The interpretation of laws rely on their precise use of language, the lab “shall” notify the NJDEP and the NJDEP “shall” provide notice of any failed test to the local health authority. According to the law these communications aren’t optional, they must take place.

Secondarily, the law also calls for the creation of a publicly accessible collection of the test results in certain geographic areas, “The department shall make available to the public a general compilation of water test results data arranged or identified by county and municipality or appropriate geographic areas therein”.[14] Again note the use of “shall”, the law leaves no ambiguity in whether this compilation will be produced or not. A publicly accessible compilation of test results allows any member of the public to freely see the extent of the problem in the Pohatcong Valley Superfund Site. This further cements this law as a driving force behind the local community within the Pohatcong Valley superfund site becoming more aware of the contamination of the groundwater. 

There are numerous affirmations by the Warren County Health Department cementing this law as the reason the public received much more information during the 2000s. The letter from the intro, which was sent by the Warren County Health Department, explicitly mentioned the Private Well Testing Act as the reason the letter was being sent.[15] In an annual report from 2007 the Warren County Health Department lists testing and notifying property owners in accordance with the Private Well Testing Act among their responsibilities.[16] Additionally, a member of the NJDEP in an interview stated that before the Private Well Testing Act was passed there were no real regulations in place for private wells.[17]

There were other events throughout the 2000s that contributed to public awareness of the contamination as well. 2009 was the first year that the EPA sent out a community update, with others following in 2012, 2015, and 2017. The relative abundance of these updates after receiving next to nothing from the EPA prior also worked to increase the public awareness of the contamination. Public meetings were also held during the early 2000s when most people were first realizing the extent of the problem. For example, in Greenwich Township there was a public meeting held in 2003, a mere two months after the letters notifying homeowners of well contamination were sent out.[18]

Post-Public Awareness (2002-2020)

Looking at the action taken by the authorities during the 2000s and the 2010s helps demonstrate the shift that occurred in the way the site was treated before and after the community was made aware of the contamination. Proceeding chronologically, we will first look at actions taken during the 2000s. The EPA conducted several studies over this time frame. In OU1 the EPA conducted a study of the site and possible courses of action moving forward. Following the conclusion of the study the EPA proposed a plan for OU1 and scheduled a meeting for the public to comment on it. Studies were also conducted starting in 2004 in OU2 that were meant to determine the extent of the problem in that OU and the best course of action. The EPA started investigating OU3 in 2009.[19]

While most of the work during the 2000s was theoretical, mostly consisting of studies and investigations, it shows that the authorities were considering the problems of the site and working towards solutions. Many of these studies were conducted to determine the extent of the contamination or investigate how potential solutions would work in practice, taking the unique considerations of the site into account.[20] The time frame under which this work was done is telling. It took less than a decade to determine the extent of the problem and determine potential solutions. Remember the same authorities who conducted these studies had known about the contamination since the late 70s and had done very little to fix the actual problem, clearly the way they perceived the site and the people in it had changed.

Much of the theoretical work of the 2000s took shape during the 2010s. Since much of the region still got drinking water from private wells going into the 2010s and official testing by the authorities was limited, concerned residents had to have their water tested themselves if they wanted to make sure it was safe. This changed during the 2010s, residences across OUs that still relied on private wells received public water connections during this time.[21] In contrast to the 1980s when members of the community were connected to public water and left at that, in the 2010s authorities finally provided a means of cleaning up the aquifer itself. During this time a facility for cleaning the contamination out of the groundwater was planned and constructed. The facility operates by pumping water out of the aquifer into the facility, filtering out contaminants, and pumping it back underground.[22]

As cleanup efforts were becoming more effective, members of the community were getting more involved. In 2003, there was a public meeting in Greenwich township that was mainly attended by members of the community that were affected by the contamination.[23] Residents of Washington Township often attended meetings of the town council to give input on environmental concerns. Some examples include a member of the public speaking with regards to their own experience regarding the then recently established OU3 in 2009.[24] Several members of the Washington Township were present to voice their concerns regarding site operations in 2014.[25] In 2016 other members of Washington Township were present to discuss some issues that farmers were having with regards to the site.[26] It’s also worth noting that these people commenting were not members of any environmental organization or agency, they were just concerned members of the community.

In the 20 years following the discovery of TCE and PCE in 1978 there was little work done besides emergency measures and even then it took 10 years to complete. After the public became aware of the situation, the lackadaisical response by the authorities was thrown out the window. Clearly there was a fire lit under the authorities, and the major change between 1978 and 2020 was the community inserting themselves into the decision making process.

Conclusion

“Notification of Well Contamination”, a deceptively simple header to a letter that belies the true nature of communication between the public and health authorities. Simply worded and only a page long it represents a turning point in the public’s interaction with the health authorities in the Pohatcong Valley Superfund Site. For the people living in the site it was more than just a notice that they might need to get their wells tested, it was a notification that they had been kept in the dark about their own homes for decades.

Indeed they had been in the dark for many years. Health authorities at the site had known about the contamination for decades before there was any effort to properly clean up the contamination. Then there was a shift. It didn’t take much for the public to start involving themselves in the cleanup process, just a little information that introduced them to the fact that there was even a problem. The main contributor to this shift was the public themselves, after they became aware of the problem because of the Private Well Testing Act. When the site did eventually get cleaned up, it wasn’t an authority working alone, it was health authorities working in tandem with members of the community.

Returning to that letter one more time, to the people of the Pohatcong Valley Superfund site it was a notice that they needed to wake up to the condition of the water under their feet, but to us it is a reminder that including the public in environmental concerns should always be a priority. People on the ground will have the lived experience to give input that would be hard for an outsider to get otherwise. Without community input the authorities at this site operated however they pleased, and the community suffered for it. When the community became aware of the problem the authorities started taking care of the public’s concerns. If people want to avoid the public being sidelined in official decision making processes with regards to environmental issues, then they have to advocate for the public receiving all the information available and being included as an integral part of the official decision making process.

Keywords: Water, Pollution, Toxics, Class, Community


[1] Dorothy Harth and John A. Hawk to Property Owners, “Notification of Well Contamination”, Letter dated March 13, 2003, In the author’s possession.

[2]United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Pohatcong Valley Ground Water Contamination Warren County NJ Cleanup Activities,” epa.gov, Accessed November 16, 2020. https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/SiteProfiles/index.cfm?fuseaction=second.cleanup&id=0201075.

[3] United States Environmental Protection Agency, “EPA to Sample Wells in Areas of Franklin and Greenwich TWPS. as Part of Investigation of Pohatcong Valley Superfund Site” (Community Update, Warren County, February 2009), In the author’s Possession.

[4] United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Pohatcong Valley Ground Water Contamination Warren County NJ Cleanup Activities,” epa.gov, Accessed November 16, 2020. https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/SiteProfiles/index.cfm?fuseaction=second.cleanup&id=0201075.

[5] New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services Environmental & Occupational Health Surveillance Program, “Public Health Implications of Site-Related Exposures to Tetrachloroethylene and Trichloroethylene” (Public Health Assessment, Warren County, New Jersey, 2012), https://www.nj.gov/health/ceohs/documents/eohap/haz_sites/warren/washington_twp/pohatcong_valley/pohatcong_site_full_report.pdf.

[6] New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services Environmental & Occupational Health Surveillance Program, “Public Health Implications of Site-Related Exposures to Tetrachloroethylene and Trichloroethylene” (Public Health Assessment, Warren County, New Jersey, 2012), https://www.nj.gov/health/ceohs/documents/eohap/haz_sites/warren/washington_twp/pohatcong_valley/pohatcong_site_full_report.pdf.

[7] Bonnie Trochim (Resident of the Community) in discussion with the author, November 2020. Audio of interview available at https://ejhistory.com/oral-interview-video-essay-image-analysis-mt/.

[8] United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Pohatcong Valley Ground Water Contamination Warren County NJ Site Documents and Data,” epa.gov, Accessed December 15, 2020. https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/SiteProfiles/index.cfm?fuseaction=second.docdata&id=0201075.

[9] Bonnie Trochim (Resident of the Community) in discussion with the author, November 2020. Audio of interview available at https://ejhistory.com/oral-interview-video-essay-image-analysis-mt/.

[10] “Private Well Testing Act”. (Senate and General Assembly of the State of New Jersey, New Jersey, 2001), https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2000/Bills/PL01/40_.PDF.

[11] “Private Well Testing Act”. (Senate and General Assembly of the State of New Jersey, New Jersey, 2001), Page 3, https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2000/Bills/PL01/40_.PDF.

[12] “Private Well Testing Act”. (Senate and General Assembly of the State of New Jersey, New Jersey, 2001), Page 3, https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2000/Bills/PL01/40_.PDF.

[13] “Private Well Testing Act”. (Senate and General Assembly of the State of New Jersey, New Jersey, 2001), Page 3, https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2000/Bills/PL01/40_.PDF.

[14] “Private Well Testing Act”. (Senate and General Assembly of the State of New Jersey, New Jersey, 2001), Page 3, https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2000/Bills/PL01/40_.PDF.

[15] Dorothy Harth and John A. Hawk to Property Owners, “Notification of Well Contamination”, March 13, 2003, In the author’s possession.

[16] Claude W. Mitchell, “Warren County Department of Health 2007 Annual Report,” (Annual Report, Warren County, 2007), page 6, http://www.co.warren.nj.us/healthdept/includings/Health_Dept._Annual_Report_2007.pdf.

[17] Todd Petty, “Private Well Testing Act Tracks Contaminates in Warren County Water,” The Warren Reporter, July 13, 2012, https://www.nj.com/warrenreporter/2012/07/private_well_testing_act_revea.html.

[18] “Public Meeting Edison Road Ground Water Contamination Site Franklin & Greenwich Townships, Warren County” (Public Meeting Notice, published in Greenwich and Franklin Townships, 2003), In the author’s possession.

[19] United States Environmental Protection Agency, “EPA to Sample Wells in Areas of Franklin and Greenwich TWPS. as Part of Investigation of Pohatcong Valley Superfund Site” (Community Update, Warren County, February 2009), In the author’s Possession.

[20]  United States Environmental Protection Agency, “EPA to Sample Wells in Areas of Franklin and Greenwich TWPS. as Part of Investigation of Pohatcong Valley Superfund Site” (Community Update, Warren County, February 2009), In the author’s Possession.

[21] United States Environmental Protection Agency, “U.S. EPA Continues Water Line Activities at the Pohatcong Valley Groundwater Contamination Superfund Site Franklin and Greenwich Townships, New Jersey” (Community Update, Warren County, June 2017), In the author’s Possession.

[22] United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Pohatcong Valley Ground Water Contamination Warren County NJ Cleanup Activities,” epa.gov, Accessed November 16, 2020. https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/SiteProfiles/index.cfm?fuseaction=second.cleanup&id=0201075

[23] “Public Meeting Edison Road Ground Water Contamination Site Franklin & Greenwich Townships, Warren County” (Public Meeting Notice, published in Greenwich and Franklin Townships, 2003), In the author’s possession.

[24] Township of Washington Warren County Environmental Commision “Meeting Minutes: September 8, 2009” (Meeting Minutes, Washington Township, 2009), http://www.washington-twp-warren.org/local_government/commission_and_boards/docs/Environmental___Minutes___2009___September_8.pdf.

[25] Township of Washington Warren County Environmental Commision, “Meeting Minutes: January 28, 2014” (Meeting Minutes, Washington Township, 2014), http://www.washington-twp-warren.org/local_government/commission_and_boards/docs/Environmental___Minutes___2014___January_28.pdf.

[26] Anna C. Godfrey, Township Clerk, “Township of Washington, Warren County Regular Meeting August 16, 2016” (Meeting Minutes, Washington Township, 2016), http://www.washington-twp-warren.org/local_government/committee_agenda_minutes_and_ordinances/docs/Committee%20-%202016%20-%20Minutes%20-%20August%2016.pdf.