HAMMONTON — Chemicals that leaked decades ago from a former dry-cleaning business contaminated groundwater at levels similar to those found at federal Superfund sites, information recently uncovered by an environmental watchdog group shows.

The Department of Environmental Protection has been dealing with polluted water coming from the Hammonton Village Shopping Center on the White Horse Pike since 2010. Several nearby homes with wells have already been given special treatment systems or were hooked up to public water.

New information, obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, through a lawsuit it filed against the Environmental Protection Agency, identifies the Hammonton site as one of 27 locations in the state with public health risks equal to or greater than currently listed Superfund sites but were passed over for federal funding.

PEER says that the EPA’s initial refusal to release this documentation or to rank these locations as national priorities for clean-up unjustly withheld the full truth from homeowners.

The problem in Hammonton apparently has affected only a small number of wells on Middle Road, northeast of where the dry-cleaning business was before it closed in the mid-1980s. Vapors were also found in the basement of the Midway Professional Building on the White Horse Pike.

Bill Wolfe, director of PEER and a former DEP employee, said the extent of the problem should not be a consideration in determining its significance.

“The size of the site has no bearing on the risks of the site,” he said. “If your well is contaminated, that’s highly significant to you.”

The EPA has a Hazard Ranking System it uses to identify threats to public and environmental health. A highly technical system produces a numerical score, and a score of 28.5 is the threshold to qualify for Superfund consideration.

A Superfund designation gives the EPA broad authority to identify polluters of the property and force them to clean up the site, or if the parties can't be found, to clean up the site using a special trust fund.

The Hammonton site received a 29.8 ranking, the lowest of the 27 sites identified in the documents PEER released, but above the threshold. One site in Livingston Township, Essex County, received a score of 70 on the scale of zero to 100.

There are five other sites in South Jersey listed in the recently released EPA documents that are not included on the Superfund list, including areas in Berlin and Winslow townships.

John Martin, press officer for the EPA, said that since the PEER litigation is ongoing the agency would not be able to comment on why any of the sites were not included on the Superfund list. 

New Jersey’s 144 Superfund sites are the most of any state. There are already 29 Superfund sites in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties.

The problem at the Hammonton site was first identified in March 2010, when the Atlantic County Health Department tested a private well on Middle Road and found a carcinogenic chemical often used in dry-cleaning called PCE. 

The department contacted the DEP, and several sites in the area were tested. A total of 17 private wells were tested; six were found to be contaminated, according to the DEP.

“They told us to stop drinking our water immediately,” said Tom Penza, who has lived at the southern end of Middle Road with his wife, Frances, since 1963. “We couldn’t even cook with it.”

The couple had to purchase bottled water for more than a year until they were hooked up to municipal water in August. The state partially reimbursed their costs for the water they bought, and the town waived the water-connection fee.

“Our well water was really excellent,” Frances Penza said. “But we don’t drink it anymore.”

The other option the state presented homeowners was to install a point-of-entry treatment system. DEP paid for those systems, and technicians monitor them monthly.

The DEP is still investigating any other causes of the contamination and is working with the owners of the Village Shopping Center, DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said.

“Under state law, current owners are considered liable for cleaning up pollution caused by past activities on their properties,” Hajna wrote in an email.

Hajna also noted that while there is a dry-cleaning storefront in the commercial center now, the business does not dry clean on the site and is not a source of the contamination.

Hammonton Mayor Steve DiDonato said he was discussing the issue with town engineers after seeing the information released by PEER. 

“This is a very unfortunate situation,” he said. “I entrust the DEP to handle the situation and monitor the wells of the homeowners that are affected by this.”

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-6th, has also called on the EPA to explain why the 27 sites given hazard scores higher than 28.5 were not listed on the national Superfund list.

PEER is continuing with litigation against the EPA under the Freedom of Information Act to seek information about hazard listings for sites that are pending a determination for Superfund status.

“Keeping those documents confidential is not good public policy,” Wolfe said. “The public should have this information, and all those kinds of things that put context around the site are totally unavailable to the public.”

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