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What lurks in the earth at PennDOT’s stockpile?

Dumping practices cause concerns; EPA moves to monitor cleanup

By SANDY LONG

SHOHOLA AND LACKAWAXEN TOWNSHIPS, PA — As if what’s been unearthed from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s (PennDOT’s) former Shohola Stockpile #6 site isn’t alarming enough, it’s what might still be buried there that is raising concerns among township and agency officials. In addition to guide rail sections, storage trailers, stumps, tires, road signs, construction debris, steel cables, pipe sections, concrete pieces, utility poles, scrap metals, tar, line paint and household garbage found to date, unidentified sources have charged that potentially more serious toxins such as herbicides and pesticides lie buried at the site.

The site includes 9.66 acres split between two Pike County townships—Lackawaxen and Shohola—and is a sobering reminder that environmental issues don’t stop at municipal boundaries. Zoning officers from both townships investigated the site recently and expressed concerns over what they found.

Lackawaxen Township Zoning Officer Jeffrey Cammerino said, “We’re here to investigate complaints about the excavation of alleged toxic materials.” He added, “I’ve observed 100-plus crushed steel containers, with some leaking a tar-like substance, 100-plus tires, buried household waste, yellow and green substances excavated from the earth. Our concern is to protect the health and safety of the public.”

Shohola Township Zoning Officer Don Wall is also the township’s fire chief and therefore trained in handling hazardous materials (HazMats). As the owner of an excavating company, Wall brings a unique perspective to the excavation.

Wall is concerned about the potential hazards associated with accidentally rupturing drums that could contain toxic materials. “We’ve heard about the potential for HazMats at the site and it’s important to assume the worst until you know differently,” said Wall.

Site history

PennDOT leased the 9.66-acre stockpile, actively using approximately five acres for 40 years in an agreement with the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC). The lease expired in July 2007. The agency states the site was abandoned for regular use in the late 80s, but that it was periodically used as a mobilization site by contractors working on state roadways.

In response to claims that hazardous materials were buried in the land, PennDOT contracted with environmental consultants Skelly and Loy, Inc. of Harrisburg to “excavate material; perform and analyze soil and water tests; dispose of materials and assist in mitigation prior to the return of the land to the Game Commission.”

Electromagnetic metal detectors, ground-penetrating radar and photo-ionization detectors were used to search for underground objects and contaminated soils. Soil samples were sent to Analytical Laboratory Services, Inc., Middletown. Water samples taken from the wetlands adjacent to the site indicated trace amounts of acetone of unknown origin.

According to a geophysical survey of the site prepared by Enviroscan, Inc., there are areas of elevated metallic response throughout the site, with areas of “significant metallic response” in the northeast and central portions of the site.

A map created during the geophysical survey shows the heaviest contamination to have occurred in the wetlands area of the property. The possibility that aquifers leading away from the property could be carrying contaminants nags at Wall. “I’m concerned for the wells in the communities below,” he said.

PennDOT has indicated that it “may collect up to 15 confirmatory samples” based upon the findings of two water samples from seeps in the northeast portion of the site. PennDOT’s Community Relations Coordinator, Karen Dussinger, said that Skelly and Loy “could continue to sample as they work through areas.”

Multiple agencies

Officials from the PGC, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and the Upper Delaware Council accompanied Wall and Cammerino during their recent visit to the site. Other agencies monitoring the site in recent weeks include the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN).

Susan Beecher, District Manager of the Pike County Conservation District (PCCD), has been monitoring the cleanup since June 26, following initial reports of earthmoving activities at the site. At that time, Beecher found a crew using a chipper to grind stumps and garbage before spreading it across the site. Beecher said she also saw garbage, glass, metal, plastics, wire, solid waste, culvert pipes, tires, metal rims, drum carcasses, more than 100 bags of tar and asphalt in a large trench and fill in the wetlands.

Beecher wrote an inspection report and sent it to PennDOT. She also notified DEP. Following initial cleanup efforts, PennDOT called a meeting of the interested parties in July in preparation for returning the property to the PGC, but the cleanup was declared incomplete.

Beecher’s primary concern now is adequate soil and water samples. She is also concerned about the potential impact to the homes below the property. “I’d like to see attention paid to the area below the wetlands,” she added.

Tip of the iceberg?

Running below the wetland is Shohola Creek. If toxic materials are indeed leaching into the soil, they may be entering the creek and being transported ultimately to the Delaware River. This possibility brought the DRN, a Philadelphia-based river advocacy organization, to the site. What they observed concerned them enough to file an environmental complaint with the EPA.

Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the DRN, noted that the site resembles a dump rather than a storage location. Following a site inspection, she said, “It’s illegal to bury waste unless you’re a solid waste landfill with the appropriate permits.” Carluccio described findings to date as the tip of the iceberg. “It really looks like an environmental catastrophe for the area. It’s shocking that a state agency did this.”

The DRN will continue to investigate the situation, filing for additional materials through the Freedom of Information Act and monitoring cleanup activities. “We’ll be looking at the results of the soil samples, how things are being characterized or sorted,” she said.

Richard Rupert, an on-scene coordinator with the EPA, said that the federal agency is following up on the environmental complaint filed by the DRN. Rupert and EPA on-scene coordinator Rich Fetzer visited the site last week and are working with the DEP to see that the cleanup is completed correctly. “After we’ve had an opportunity to look at the sampling data, we can determine what needs to be done,” Rupert said. As an example of possible measures that could be taken, Rupert said the EPA could require the establishment of at least three wells to assess water quality at the site. “It’s a sensitive site due to the wetlands,” said Rupert.

DEP spokesperson Mark Carmon, said that DEP’s current role is to “monitor the cleanup plans established by PennDOT and their contractor.” Carmon said the cleanup is being regulated through the DEP’s solid waste management program. Depending on the outcome of the testing, the DEP could require additional sampling by PennDOT or conduct sampling of their own. “At this point, those issues are pending,” said Carmon. Carmon also said the DEP is watching what is being done with materials as they are removed. “A lot of that material should have gone to a landfill in the first place,” he added.

Wall wants to see PennDOT held to the same standards by the DEP as are businesses, homeowners and townships. “In HazMat training, we’re taught to mitigate and remove the offending materials, not to bury them,” said Wall. Even so, Wall wants to work toward solutions. “If there’s a problem, let’s do something now to remediate it,” he said.

Wall and others have begun advocating for testing of nearby wells and substantially increasing the number of core samples being taken. “I’m fighting for the welfare of the people in my township,” said Wall. “Do what it takes to fix this.”

As for whether or not PennDOT plans to provide private well testing, Dussinger said, “We have not yet reached that determination as all testing by the consultant and the final report with recommendations is not yet in.” For a list of laboratories that will analyze private water supplies in the state of Pennsylvania, visit www.dep.state.pa.us/labs.

Contributed photo
Drum carcasses leak a black oily substance at PennDOT’s Shohola Stockpile #6 site on Route 6 in Shohola, PA. (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Sandy Long
A paint-like substance oozes from a crushed drum at PennDOT’s Shohola Stockpile #6 site on Route 6 in Shohola, PA. (Click for larger version)
Contributed photo
Metal debris unearthed at the site.head1-stockpile04 (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Sandy Long
Shohola Township Zoning Officer Don Wall, left, and Lackawaxen Township Zoning Officer Jeff Cammarino stand near piles of excavated items destined for removal from the site. (Click for larger version)