Just how dirty is your dirt?

Environment. Offers of free soil have surged with the regional construction boom, producing an abundance of displaced dirt needing relocation. But what may be buried in it can create long term toxicity, and removing it is costly. Soil should be tested before accepted, say local officials and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

| 20 Jun 2022 | 06:55

A big pile of orphaned dirt lies on the shoulder of Gate Schoolhouse Rd. in Goshen, one of a number of disowned dirt piles around town, says Neil Hall, Town of Goshen building inspector. Neither those who delivered the pile nor those who received it have been willing to take responsibility for it.

“We’re sending out notices for six to eight sites,” Hall said. “We find out about them because the property owner may say, ‘I asked for ten truckloads and got 50 loads. Or neighbors complain.”

Neighbors as well as town officials worry about contaminated runoff flowing into the water table and toxifying wells and the ground where children play, said Michael Sweeton, Town Supervisor in Warwick, where similar incidents have been increasing.

“We have been seeing a big increase in people offering ‘free’ soil to unsuspecting residents, and it’s happening all over Orange County,” he said. “The problem for the homeowner is that when we discover this on our own or via a complaint from someone, we investigate. If the soil is not usable due to contamination, it’s the homeowner who bears the cost of clean-up and removal—this can be costly.”

Each pile has its own history and composition, which are too often a mystery to the property owner. But whatever the source, contaminated soil can cost tens of thousands of dollars to remove and truck to a treatment facility.

Sweeton recalled a recent incident on Glenwood Rd., where a property owner had fill brought in from a construction site. A neighbor living downhill from the soil delivery noticed the activity and complained.

“But they didn’t complain until the dirt was all delivered,” said Sweeton. “We called the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, and they said you can’t use construction debris. We were told that the guy who brought the soil would be back in two days, but he never showed.”

Disappearance of dumpers is typical, say Sweeton and Hall. Sweeton says that every truckload should have an analysis before dumping.

“‘Clean fill’ is advertised on social media, and people say, ‘Oh yeah, my lawn gets real wet,’” said Sweeton. They attempt to use it to reduce swampy areas of their property. “But you can’t build on 25% fill.”

Codes are similar in Goshen and surrounding areas, and similar problems occur, Hall said. He recalled a homeowner who received fill from an Orange and Rockland construction site and put it in an unapproved site too close to wetlands.

“The DEC is concerned about the amount of out of state soil brought to farms without knowing anything about the soil,” he said. “They try to put the soil where it’s not seen. Buying soil, the biggest cost is mileage. The shortest run is the cheapest.”

These days he wonders where materials left from the resurfacing of Route 17 will end up.

“The ground up asphalt will have to go somewhere. The DOT worries about where to dump it. Maybe it could be recycled as blacktop, not put in yards,” said Hall.

Meanwhile, prosecution of those involved with illegally dumped dirt will move forward, taking a few months to two years.

“They’ll say, ‘I didn’t know,’ and point fingers, and taxpayers money will be spent to clean up.” He hopes for cooperation.

“On Gate Schoolhouse Rd., the police see the dumped dirt as a problem because it’s in the right of way,” Hall said. “The DEC is concerned about contamination.”

DEC acts on fill influx

The boom in housing construction, accelerated by the pandemic, has led to more displaced soil needing relocation, and the DEC has seen a regular flow of construction and demolition debris into this region over the last decade, particularly from New York City, DEC spokesperson Wendy Rosenbach said.

Although not all construction and demolition debris is unlawful, the DEC’s Southern District Solid Waste Task Force recently deployed a team to scrutinize the situation. Task Force members discovered unlawful disposal of solid waste at eight sites throughout Westchester, Orange, Ulster, and Sullivan counties. The investigations resulted in 600 Notices of Violation to trucking companies, drivers, dirt brokers, and property owners.

In addition to creating water table related hazards, solid waste contributes to climate change, generating methane as it decays in landfills, and nitrous oxide during combustion. This blend of hazards has prompted the DEC to propose new solid waste regulations, including tightening restrictions on what can be reused and how fill materials are stored.

New Jersey soil sorrows as cautionary tales

Hall knows of no cases locally of people sickened by water contamination from construction debris, and most of the soil delivered is not contaminated, he said. But in New Jersey, wariness stems from a history of contaminated soil that, even after remediation, left contaminated waste that sickened people and needed ongoing treatment.

There are currently 152 Superfund sites in New Jersey, including three in Sussex County and two in Passaic County. Water issues continue in both Sussex and Passaic Counties as a result.

From the early 1960’s to the ‘90’s, faulty on-site waste disposal and storage practices at A.O. Polymer Corporation in Sparta led to the contamination of groundwater in residential wells, forcing residents to be shifted to the municipal water supply. Once the site was abandoned by its owner in 1994, the Environmental Protection Agency instituted a removal plan to rid the site of its vast amounts of hazardous and non-hazardous waste. In a review of the site, issued 35 years after the first investigation , all remedial action construction for the site was deemed complete.

In Byram Township, an industrial solvent detected in drinking water was traced to the dumping of septic and other industrial wastes in trenches near the Mansfield trail path. Water filtration and treatment systems had to be installed to protect residents from health hazards. In Ringwood Borough, located in Passaic County, Ford Motor Co. disposed of paint sludge and drums in abandoned mines, resulting in groundwater contamination and high rates of cancer and other health problems, prompting the implementation of various remediation projects. The company was sued recently, on June 16, by the state of New Jersey for damaging the land’s natural resources. State officials intend to return the area to its pre-polluted condition.

Superfund sites are not the only hazardous sites in New Jersey. As of June 18, the NJDEP listed more than 13,000 active sites with confirmed contamination.

Recently, in Hardyston, soil dumping regulations were put in place proactively “after awful sordid circumstances in Vernon,” resulting from construction fill brought from elsewhere, said Township Manager Carrine Kaufer. “We wanted to have mechanisms for enforcement.”

For years, a Vernon property owner, Joseph Wallace, operated an unlicensed solid waste facility on his property in a quiet residential neighborhood. Complaints were many and loud for years before the seven-story mountain of contaminated dirt was addressed.

“New Jersey is great with ideas, but bad at following through and implementation,” said Jay Fischer, referring to the long, frustrating Wallace case.

Fischer owns Ag Choice, which he founded in 2005 as a commercial food waste composter. He composts a variety of organics, including leaves, food waste and manufacturing organics such as coffee, spent leaf, nut and bean products, “virgin materials” that he makes into topsoil.

But he knows the challenges of relocating contaminated soil. In 1991 his work involved running contaminated soil to Ohio. The soil came from gas stations, full of oil, and he took it to kilns, originally for clay manufacturing, that had been repurposed to burn off contaminants, including petroleum. He had to have a garbage hauling license to receive and haul fill dirt.

“But now many contractors are problematic,” he said. “Transportation and processing costs are high. Many are doing things on the down low, without accountability. They run it out to the country to someone needing dirt. Hundreds of thousands of tons of material gets dumped.”

Additional research on Superfund and toxic waste sites in New Jersey was contributed by Kaleigh Kuddar.