VINELAND — The multimillion-dollar effort to stop the flow of arsenic from the Vineland Chemical Co. federal Superfund site is nearing completion of another crucial phase.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s work will essentially stop the flow of arsenic from the site in the city’s North Vineland section into the adjacent Blackwater Branch, which drains into the Maurice River and, eventually, Union Lake in Millville.
The final phase of the work involves excavating 89,000 tons of arsenic-laced peat from a section of the Blackwater Branch between the river and Maurice River Parkway, EPA officials said. The combined four stages of that work involved removing 251,400 tons of peat, organic material found in marshy or damp regions, from the Blackwater Branch, they said.
The cleanup work on the Blackwater Branch began about four years ago.
Once the final phase of the Blackwater Branch work is complete, federal officials will begin a three-year period of monitoring the Maurice River for arsenic levels, said Nica Klaber, project manager for the Vineland Chemical cleanup effort. Any further work will depend on the results of that monitoring, she said.
Cleanup efforts at Vineland Chemical began in 1992.
Klaber said the lengthy cleanup and cost — at least $124 million — could not be avoided given the extent of the problem.
“This plant opened in 1949,” Klaber said. “Between then and 1994, (Vineland Chemical operators were) dumping arsenic wastes that were discharging into the Blackwater Branch and (had) salts sitting on open ground and lagoons. That’s a long time for a lot of arsenic.”
When the project is eventually finished, environmentalists said, the Maurice River that they have fought so long to preserve and keep clean will no longer be endangered because of the Vineland Chemical situation.
“I am satisfied that they started with the most highly contaminated areas and started to work downstream,” said Jane Morton Galetto, a Millville resident and president of Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River and its Tributaries. “I am also satisfied that their … restoration appears to be with the most recent and best management practices for stream restoration.”
Galetto said that even involved the EPA asking for input on the best kind of mulch to use in connection with restoring vegetation that was dug up from the Blackwater Branch during the cleanup.
“We’ve got the impression that they have a lot of competent people on their team, and they are very good at wanting to do a good job,” Galetto said.
Vineland Chemical manufactured chemicals used primarily as pesticides. One of the byproducts involved piles of salt containing large concentrations of arsenic.
The company, owned by the late Arthur Schwerdtle, allowed the arsenic salts to sit on the property for the first 27 years of its existence. Rain washed the arsenic-tainted materials into nearby wetlands surrounding the Blackwater Branch. Those materials reached the Maurice River and eventually Union Lake.
The operation closed in 1994.
Over the years, the cleanup work involved the EPA closing eight contaminated buildings on the site and operating the largest soil-cleansing facility in the country. The EPA also dug a series of canals to temporarily divert the Blackwater Branch while cleanup efforts proceeded.
“It’s a very complicated project,” Klaber said.
The federal government is paying for most of the cleanup work. A 1994 settlement with Schwerdtle’s wife was for about $4 million, EPA officials said.
Contamination linked to Vineland Chemical continues to have an effect on parts of North Vineland.
Klaber said a ban on digging wells continues in the vicinity of the plant.
“No one is allowed to drill any wells for drinking water,” Klaber said. “People who are living in the area were informed of that. Everyone in the vicinity is aware of this, and most people are on city water.”
Klaber, 30, said she has worked on the Vineland Chemical project for three years and became project manager about a year ago. She said working on the project is the culmination of all the training and schooling she has undergone.
“I really believe in the work the EPA is doing to clean up,” she said. “It’s going to take a while to clean up. We all wish we could just make it magically disappear.”
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