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Toxic Cleanups Designed To Protect Wildlife Protect People Too

Far More Stringent Wildlife Cleanup Standards Drive The Extent of Cleanup

[Update: If you’re happy with soundbite environmentalism like “canary in the coal mine”, then read no further. If you’d like reasoned argument and supporting scientific evidence, by all means, proceed. end update]

I need to clarify some serious misunderstandings that are being exploited in Pompton Lakes regarding the proposed Dupont cleanup plan for mercury in the Acid Brook Delta portion of Pompton Lake.

Well meaning residents are saying things like this:

“Why are we cleaning up the Lake to protect fish and birds – people are more important. Human health should be the cleanup priority.”

“I’m no environmentalist – I care about my family first.”

What those reasonable observations ignore are the facts that:

1)  cleanups based on standards set to protect wildlife are far more extensive, because cleanup standards for wildlife are far, far lower (stricter) than human health standards;

2) people eat fish and other wildlife, so protecting wildlife directly protects public health;

3) wildlife based cleanups often include “natural resource injury” damages. This means Dupont must pay for ecological restoration, land preservation, and/or financial compensation to the public. These NRD clams by federal Trustees can provide huge benefits to the local community – and need not be a ripoff like the prior NJ DEP sweetheart NRD deal with Dupont. (see: our May 16, 2009 letter to Gov. Corzine and the later Bergen Record story:  Dupont deal gave state more tainted soil); and

4) A wildlife base cleanup would provide far more extensive cleanup of the soil and groundwater at not just Pompton Lake, but the entire Dupont site.

(this is why Gov. Christie last year quietly killed DEP’s legal ability to adopt wildlife based cleanup standardsso that polluters would not have to pay for far more extensive and costly cleanups and compensate the public, see: Ecological Standards ignored for 16 years – polluters dodge billions in liability:

Few people realize that the [NJ State cleanup] law actually prohibits the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) from adopting standards to clean up, protect, and restore damaged fish, wildlife, natural resources and ecosystems impaired by toxic chemicals polluting the environment at over 20,000 sites in New Jersey.

I)  Why a wildlife based cleanup is better for the residents of Pompton Lakes

Let me take the first point to illustrate why (I use the terms wildlife and ecological standards interchangeably).

Toxic contaminated sites are often polluted by many dangerous chemicals. Cleanups are driven by the lowest standard for chemicals found on site. For example, if the cleanup standard for chemical X is 100 ppm; chemical Y is 10 ppm and chemical Z is  1 ppm, then the cleanup is designed based on the the 1 ppm for chemical Z.

Similarly, standards come in different “flavors”, depending pin environmental media (i.e. soil, groundwater, surface water, sediment). The same lowest standard approach applies. So if the soil standard is 50 ppm, the groundwater standard is 5 ppm, and the surface water standard is 1 ppb (Billion, 5,000 times LOWER than the groundwater standard) then cleanups must meet the groundwater standard (after conversions from soil, groundwater, and surface water are considered).

Last, cleanup standards are set for different reasons. Some are set to protect people, and some are set to protract ecosystems and wildlife. Standards are also set based upon the most likely and most sensitive type of exposure “pathway” to a chemicals, e.g. via breathing (inhalation), via eating (ingestion), via drinking (MCL), or via direct skin contact with it (dermal contact) or ecological (wildlife impacts, food consumption).

Wildlife standard are set for chemicals that can harm wildlife directly, or do harm to wildlife or to human health via  bioaccumulation through the food chain. Something like this – purely hypothetical example:

1) Sediment level is 1 X  2) bacteria convert to methy form and make bio-available 3)  Micro-organisms uptake at (1 X) 4)  to worms (10 X) – 5) to crayfish (100 X)- 6) to little fish (1,000 X) – 7) to big fish (10,000 X) – 8) to birds that eat fish (100,000 X) 9) to people who eat them (1 million x).

As the chemical moves up the food chain, at each step, concentrations increase by 10 times or more, resulting  in toxic effects. In this case, the chemical concentration in sediments is magnified over 1 MILLION times.

Here are some specifics to illustrate the issues.

DEP does not have cleanup standards for sediment or any wildlife (ecological) cleanup standards.

The DEP soil cleanup standard for PCB’s is 0.2 ppm (MILLION). It is based on soil ingestion and dermal contact (no one eats sediments anyway).

But the DEP proposed wildlife surface water quality standard for PCBs. It was based on effects on birds, and was 0.000072 parts per BILLION that is 2.7 MILLION TIMES LOWER than the human health based soil standard (and people do eat fish and birds).

So, a PCB cleanup designed to protect birds would be FAR MORE EXTENSIVE – e.g. more complete and better protective of people.

Similarly, the DEP soil cleanup standard of mercury is 23 ppm (Million).

But the DEP proposed wildlife surface water quality standard for mercury to birds and people that eat fish is 0.00053 ppb (BILLION). That is 43 MILLION time lower than the soil cleanup standard.

So again, cleanup based on wildlife standards would be far more extensive.

Specifically, although both mercury and lead were present in high concentrations, the prior Acid Brook stream cleanup was driven by lead. The DEP soil lead cleanup standard is 400 ppm, which was set to protect people from soil ingestion.

Had that cleanup instead been based on DEP’s proposed mercury wildlife surface water standard set to protect from ecological impacts and bioaccumulation, far more sediments and soil along the stream would have been excavated.

And the Lake would have been targeted for cleanup and consideration would have been given to the lake sediment cleanup 25 years ago.!

II)  The Path Going Forward – What’s Next

The Dupont proposed cleanup plan is now before US EPA. The plan is being reviewed by US Fish and Willdife Service.

EPA will soon make a decision that will determine the fate of the entire Dupont cleanup (not just the Acid Brook Delta) and finally resolve the Superfund issue, i.e. decide whether to take over the cleanup under Superfund or let Dupont continue to control things under RCRA.

EPA needs to remain the focus of residents attention in this critical period.

The planning board will meet on Tuesday night regarding a Dupont proposed soil mining permit needed to dredge.

That local issue is a diversion –

Worse, it provides cover for Dupont’s surrogates to derail the Acid Brook and Lake cleanup plan by alleging unacceptable neighborhood impacts, e.g. trucks, dust, “swimming”, hazards to school kids, etc. This is exactly what Dupont wants – no cleanup at all!

Instead, here’s what folks need to do:

1. Residents need to stay focused on EPA. We are in a critical period. The ball is in EPA’s court.

2. Residents should tell the Planning Board that it is premature to consider the Dupont soil excavation permit until EPA makes a final decision on the extent of the cleanup (e.g. the full cleanup would involve man times more trucks and far greater lake dredging).

3. Residents need to SUPPORT a complete permanent cleanup (e.g. the Lake, downriver, and the entire Dupont site) based on wildlife standards and US FWS recommendations.

4. Residents need to DEMAND that EPA consider the wildlife expertise and recommendations of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and EXTEND Dupont’s proposed cleanup

5. Residents need to SUPPORT US  FWS and pressure them to file a Natural Resource Damages claim on Dupont for poisoning fish and wildlife and eliminating people’s opportunity to eat the fish they catch.

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