Arsenic found in Bergen County brook renews concerns, calls to halt Toll Brothers project

Arsenic found in Bergen County brook renews concerns, calls to halt Toll Brothers project

Source: https://www.northjersey.com, February 25, 2019
By: Scott Fallon

More than a year after it began, muddy runoff from a construction site is still seeping into a once-pristine upper Bergen County brook, raising concerns among some residents and local officials that arsenic from the property is contaminating the waterway.

Engineers for Upper Saddle River and state environmental regulators say the arsenic levels in Pleasant Brook meet state surface and drinking water standards. See the letter below.

But samples taken last fall from the brook and the construction site by a Mahwah official show that arsenic levels exceed New Jersey’s stringent drinking water standards. See the lab results below.

Those results have reignited efforts by a group of residents to halt construction of 78 Toll Brothers houses on the former Apple Ridge Country Club until the company can stop arsenic-laden water from washing off the site and entering the brook.

“I don’t allow my kids to go play down here anymore,” said Beata Savreski, a mother of three young boys who lives near the brook in Upper Saddle River. “This has been off limits until this is cleaned up, until we know it’s safe.”

Pollution at the Toll Brothers’ 113-acre site, which is in Mahwah and Upper Saddle River off Meadowbrook Road, dates back decades to when it operated as an apple orchard.

Pesticides containing arsenic were used at the orchard until the mid-1960s, when the property was sold to the Carlough family, who built the Apple Ridge Country Club and its 18-hole golf course.

Prolonged ingestion of arsenic, a naturally occurring element, can cause a number of ailments, including liver and kidney damage. Arsenic alsoincreases the risk of cancer over a lifetime, according to the National Pesticide Information Center. The more toxic form of arsenic has not been used in pesticides in the U.S. since 1993, the American Cancer Society says.

The property was sold in 2014. Toll Brothers began work in 2017, cutting down about 1,000 trees that had long stemmed the amount of runoff getting into Pleasant Brook. The company dealt with the arsenic-laden soil by blending the top few feet with clean soil to dilute the contaminants and bring them within state-permitted levels.

In January 2018, residents saw the little waterway turn from crystal clear to muddy and opaque. “It was like someone replaced the water with chocolate milk,” said Derek Michalski, whose home sits along the brook.

The muddy water was the result of stormwater running off the site and being pumped from the Toll Brothers property into the brook, which begins in Mahwah and meanders through Ramsey and Upper Saddle River before connecting to the Saddle River.

A stop-work order was issued by Upper Saddle River in January 2018 for “uncontrolled muddy water runoff,” but work eventually resumed.

Toll Brothers said in a statement that testing late last year showed that arsenic levels in the soil on its property and in the water meet New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection standards. And arsenic in water samples taken by Boswell Engineering at the request of Upper Saddle River did not exceed federal and state arsenic levels.

“The NJ DEP sets the standards and has weighed in repeatedly on the remediation and our test results,” said Upper Saddle River Mayor Joanne L. Minichetti. “There is a great deal of concrete, substantiated information on our website, usrtoday.org.  The safety and health of our residents is always our first priority. That is why we’ve been testing monthly and continue to do so.”

But three separate water samples taken in September from a retention basin on the Toll Brothers site, from a drainage pipe and from the brook show arsenic levels above New Jersey’s standard for drinking water. See the report below.

The samples were taken by Frank Pallotta, a member of the Mahwah Planning board and Environmental Commission. Pallotta was concerned about the runoff, having been a member of the Apple Ridge Country Club and knowing its history of arsenic contamination.

A retention basin on the property had the highest reading, 16.6 micrograms per liter, followed by a drain pipe connected to the basin, at 16.3. A water sample from the brook came back at 7.3 micrograms per liter. New Jersey’s standard for drinking water is 5 micrograms per liter. The federal drinking water standard is 10 micrograms per liter.

“I’m not looking to point fingers. I just want to make it clear that toxic water was pouring into the stream,” Pallotta said.

Minichetti dismissed Pallotta’s findings, saying “no environmental engineer was involved or any supervision” when he took the samples. Pallotta said he followed detailed instructions from laboratory supervisors at nearby Alpha Analytical, who sent him proper equipment to take the water samples.

“He didn’t just grab these samples and put them in his mom’s Tupperware,” said Erik Friis, an Upper Saddle River resident who wrote a report analyzing Pallotta’s results.

Toll Brothers did not address questions about Pallotta’s findings.

In a statement, the company said other water samples taken last fall showed that remediation “protects the public health and safety and the environment.”

“This site was successfully remediated as of December 2017” under the guidance of a state-certified contractor,  the statement reads. “The post-remedial soil testing on the site concluded that the soil meets the New Jersey DEP’s most stringent residential standards.”

A licensed environmental contractor working for Toll Brothers oversaw the blending of the contaminated and clean soils at the property and issued a document declaring the site clean, according to the DEP letter. The letter is posted below.

DEP officials reviewed the paperwork and signed off on it, saying the work was “protective of public health and safety” after reviewing reports from Toll Brothers’ environmental contractor, according to a DEP letter sent in December to Mahwah officials concerned about possible contamination.

Water samples collected in October and November by Boswell Engineering, Upper Saddle River’s engineer, showed arsenic concentrations “well below” the surface water standard of 150 micrograms per liter. The DEP said those results show the Toll Brothers site had been cleaned to the agency’s satisfaction.

Friis said Boswell took samples when the water was not being pumped from the site. “It’s like testing your toilet for sewage after you flushed it 10 times,” he said.

A representative for Boswell Engineering did not respond to a request for comment.

Toll Brothers is one of the biggest home builders in the nation, with more than $7 billion in revenue last year.

Toll Brothers has a history of poor stormwater management practices, culminating in a $741,000 settlement with the federal government.

The 2012 settlement required Toll Brothers “to inspect its current and future construction sites routinely to minimize stormwater runoff from sites.”

Some residents and officials say that’s hardly being followed in Bergen County.

Pleasant Brook meanders south and joins the Saddle River, where local officials are concerned that it could contaminate well water. “If there is surface contamination it will eventually reach the aquifer,” Saddle River Mayor Albert Kurpis said.

“A lot of the older residents still drink the well water,” he said. “A lot of homes have pools, and children are in the pools all day long. We know that skin is the largest organ, and it absorbs vast amounts of chemicals and nutrients. We have trout in the Saddle River, and there are people who fish and eat the fish. So there are a lot of concerns across the board.”

Arsenic in Michalski’s well water exceeded the state drinking water standard when his kitchen tap was tested last year. Whether the Toll Brothers runoff caused the elevated levels is not known. “All I know is when I bought the house there were no problems with arsenic and now there is,” said Michalski, who has led the fight to stop the runoff.

Adding to the concerns is Toll Brothers’ plans to build more than 200 town house unitsat a nearby Upper Saddle River property near the Pleasant Brook.

On a recent February day after a moderate rainstorm, the brook ranmuddy.

Savreski’s three young sons often played in the brook, splashing in the water and catching crayfish during the summer, after the family moved into a home near the brook five years ago.

“I fell in love with the bucolic nature here,” she said.

“The water was always clear then,” Savreski said. “It was beautiful. It was never muddy.”

“Now I don’t even let them put their feet in there,” she said. “I don’t know if there is arsenic or lead. And I don’t want my boys exposed if there is.”

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