Radioactive rocks to be moved from South Jersey Superfund site

20170116_inq_jshield16z-a
"It's been a long time coming," says Newfield's mayor, Donald Sullivan.

It seemed good news when Shieldalloy Metallurgical Corp. set up a factory in little Newfield Borough back in 1955, but the town's newfound prosperity would come at a price.

Before long, Shieldalloy was stockpiling massive radioactive rocks in the field behind its processing plant, which itself was leaching carcinogenic chromium and other toxic metals into the borough's groundwater.

By the time the company closed its doors 10 years ago, the 67-acre property along Southwest Boulevard was a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, where pumps still work 24 hours a day pulling chromium and other compounds to the surface.

And those mildly radioactive boulders, called "slag," are still sitting out in the rain.

Now, however, things might be turning around for the notorious site, which Newfield officials hope might once again be put to good use.

In November, the EPA announced a $5.6 million agreement with Shieldalloy to treat contaminated soil, sediment, surface water and groundwater at the site.

And last week, New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection announced that Shieldalloy would cart away all 44,000 tons of its radioactive slag and dust.

The company had fought a long legal battle to cap the slag with a layer of earth, said DEP spokesman Larry Hajna. "But we didn't want to see it sitting out there for eternity. We always insisted on removal as the only acceptable decommissioning plan."

A by-product of imported ores that Shieldalloy used for 50 years in the manufacture of specialty steel and alloys, the slag contains trace amounts of uranium, thorium and radium, according to the DEP, but there is a lot of it. Heaped more than 10 feet high, it fills a tract about the size of a football field.

"I just want see it gone," said Donald Sullivan, mayor of this Gloucester County community of 1,500 bordering Vineland. "It's been a long time coming."

Borough officials and residents alike "want the opportunity to have the property used for something commercial. That would help us out a lot," said Sullivan. "It's hard when it's a Superfund site."

Measurements taken by DEP's Bureau of Environmental Radiation show that some parts of the massive slag heap give off only "background" levels of ionized radiation no greater than what emanates from a TV set, according to Hajna. Other parts, however, show radiation levels "hundreds of times greater than background," he said.

Overall, said Hajna, the average radiation on the site is low enough to put it at "level A," the mildest category of potential health hazard.

It was for that reason the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for decades allowed Shieldalloy's gray boulders to sit exposed to the elements.

In 2009, however, new federal regulations allowed states to take regulatory oversight of certain types of radioactive facilities, and New Jersey was among the states that chose to do so.

Within months, the DEP presented Shieldalloy with a "decommissioning plan" that called for hauling the slag out of Newfield, but "they fought us," said Hajna, "and they almost won."

The plant's parent company, headquartered in Cambridge, Ohio, vigorously challenged the legality of allowing states to regulate radioactively contaminated sites.

Federal courts twice remanded jurisdiction of the disposal area back to the NRC, but the DEP pressed back, and in December 2014, the U.S. Circuit Court in Washington decreed that the DEP had regulatory authority.

"Since that time, Shieldalloy has been working cooperatively toward a decommissioning plan," the DEP said in a news release last week.

The company has 60 days to solicit bids and hire a contractor to remove the slag and dust, it said. Plans call for creation of a rail spur that will allow the materials to be taken to a federally regulated disposal area outside New Jersey.

The agreement regarding radioactive materials does not concern remediation of the hexavalent chromium and other hazardous compounds on the site. That is being overseen by the EPA, which has barred any future residential use of the property.

Those remediation measures include excavating and removing contaminated sediment, and using "nonhazardous additives," including emulsified vegetable oil, to break down contaminants in the groundwater.

EPA is also requiring Shieldalloy to install a one to two-foot cap over a 1.3-acre area of soil contaminated with vanadium, and to remove 9,800 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from a nearby stream known as the Hudson Branch.

"The EPA will conduct a review every five years to ensure the effectiveness of the cleanup," according to Elias Rodriguez, a spokesman for the EPA's New York region.

While the DEP's insistence that Shieldalloy remove the radioactive slag won it praise from the New Jersey Sierra Club, the environmental group's executive director, Jeff Tittel, denounced the EPA's capping plan as "not a true cleanup."

"All sites that are capped will at some point leak toxic material," said Tittel, who called the plan a "sellout."

James McQueeny, spokesman for Shieldalloy, said that while the company understands Newfield's hopes that the site would someday house a new commercial or manufacturing operation, "our first order of business right now is the cleanup.

"Any dialogue about end use," he said, "will have to come later."

doreilly@phillynews.com 856-779-3841

Continue Reading