In Alice Johnston’s kitchen, I was unsure which view was more impressive — the sunlit surface of Kirkwood Lake, or the paperwork on the table chronicling the decades-long battle to get toxic elements removed from the water, the lake bottom, and the surrounding landscape.
“That’s not even all of it,” Johnston said, pointing to the foot-and-a-half-tall stack of correspondence, reports, and test results. They detail the lead, arsenic, and other contaminants that have long flowed from a 19th-century industrial complex in Gibbsboro into Kirkwood Lake in Voorhees.
The lake is part of a complicated Superfund site that lies mostly upstream in Gibbsboro. It was there that the Sherwin-Williams Co. operated a paintworks — founded by John Lucas in 1852 — from 1930 until the late 1970s. The man-made, 25-acre lake is part of the Hilliards Creek tributary of the Cooper River.
“It was beautiful when we moved here,” said Ed Kelleher, a member of Johnston’s small but determined citizens group known as the Kirkwood Lake Environmental Cleanup Committee. “Now it’s a witch’s brew.”
At long last, Sherwin-Williams has been at work, overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, on portions of the Gibbsboro site and is preparing to remove and remediate contaminated soil on Johnston’s property and those of five other homeowners along Steven Drive. That work could start as soon as April 1.
But Johnston and some of her Steven Drive neighbors call the plan unacceptable. They’re concerned about potential risks from contaminants being excavated and transported along a temporary roadway to be built between their backyards and the lake, and about having their lives disrupted by problems for which they were not responsible.
“The crux of the thing is, they want to come in and tear down every tree, build a road, work for three to six months, and then come back several years later to do the lake. They’re putting the cart before the horse,” said Johnston. “Why can’t they do these things concurrently?”
A reasonable question. I tried to get an answer from Sherwin-Williams, where a too-busy-to-talk spokesperson referred me to www.swhilliardscreek.com, a website that does contain useful information.
Mary Mears, spokesperson director for the EPA’s Region II, which includes New Jersey, said via email that the agency’s overall approach is “to prioritize residential cleanup,” such as Sherwin-Williams already has completed in Gibbsboro, before other aspects of the project.
“We will oversee this work [to the Kirkwood properties] to ensure that it ... minimizes disruption and inconvenience to property owners,” she said, adding that an evaluation of the bodies of water on the entire Superfund site should be completed next year, with “remedy selection” the following year.
“EPA’s approach has been to address the higher contamination upstream first,” Mears said. And taking note of requests to address the lake sooner rather than later, “EPA remains open to opportunities that could address those concerns.”
Camden County has been working with the EPA, Sherwin-Williams, and Johnston’s group on whether the lake — so loaded with sediment that it’s just a few inches deep in many places — could be dredged before remediation work upstream in Gibbsboro is completed.
“We own the lake, so we hired experts to identify what would happen to it if we waited, and they concluded that the lake would be dead,” said Freeholder Jeff Nash.
“Sherwin-Williams has always been extremely amenable to discussing a resolution to the lake problem as long as it meant the company wasn’t going to have to redredge it later on," he said. “And the county does not want redredging the lake to detract in any way from the work that’s going on upstream in Gibbsboro.”
In a statement, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, whose district includes Gibbsboro and Voorhees, said he has been advocating for remediation of the entire site since taking office five years ago.
“I’ve been focused on speeding up the work on the Gibbsboro/Kirkwood Lake Superfund site [by] working to bring all parties to the table after a decades-long delay,” the Camden Democrat said, adding — accurately, in my view — that “more has been done in these past few years than in the past 30.”
Norcross also said he will "continue to work with the EPA, Sherwin-Williams, local and county governments, and community members to get a concurrent clean-up solution in place and acted upon, and to ensure that this project continues to progress.”
For Johnston and her allies along the lake, the prospect of six months of noisy, dirty, disruptive construction — not to mention the removal of beloved trees and other landscape amenities — nevertheless looms large.
“I am devastated,” Johnston, who has twice beaten breast cancer, said. “I don’t know if I can handle this ... remediation. We’ve had to live with this for 40 years. And they can’t come up with something better?"
I would think they could.
“When we first started talking about this [cleanup], I was 62. I am now 77," Kelleher said. "My wish is that when this is finished, I will still be on this side of the grass.”