Cleaning Up The Gems Landfill

Posted: October 15, 1989

There's a place for everything, and for 60 million cubic yards of things nobody wants, that place is the GEMS landfill in Gloucester Township.

Work is under way on a court-ordered, $32.5 million cleanup of the site, but the crews in their white protective suits can't make the garbage disappear.

The best the township can hope for, officials say, is that leaking poisons percolating through the 60-acre dump can be contained and treated, and that the rust-colored chemical plume flowing into nearby Briar Lake and Holly Run will go dry.

"The leachate is always coming out and will always be coming out until we fix it," said Edward McClusick, the onsite representative of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

"We are preventing the contaminants in the site from contaminating the surrounding environment," said Edward Putnam, a DEP spokesman.

"We are going to contain it, and we consider that a cure," he said.

The cleanup at the site on Hickstown and Erial Roads could take as long as 30 years, Putnam said.

Hazardous chemicals that the DEP tests for in and around the GEMS site include benzene, ethyl benzene, cyclohexane, methyl chloride, toluene, tri- benzene and xylene.

No contaminants have been found in air samples near GEMS, the DEP says, but Briar Lake and Holly Run are polluted.

Phase I of the GEMS cleanup plan calls for an underground system of several thousand feet of pipes and wells to trap water and gases leaking from the landfill. Dredging crews also are scheduled to scrape the chemical deposits

from the bottom of Briar Lake and Holly Run. Work began on Phase I in June and will continue through 1992.

The construction of an on-site treatment system for the leachate isolated by the pipes built in Phase I is scheduled for Phase II.

The plans also call for cleanup crews to spread 250,000 cubic yards of clay on top of the dump to prevent rainwater from seeping through the top of the landfill and draining hazardous chemicals out through the bottom.

Bulldozer crews are now carving a road to the top of the 300-foot-deep pile of household and industrial trash. The road will provide a means for workers to get on top of the huge mound and to regrade it and cover it with clay. A pit has been dug for the temporary storage of any leaking barrels of hazardous waste that the crews discover.

"We have 25 people working here now," McClusick said. "We have seven trailers, three bulldozers, two dump trucks, a grader, a fuel truck, a tree cutter and a water truck."

Canonie Environmental of King of Prussia, Pa., and Hart Associates of New York have been hired to do the work and manage the site.

Dump trucks and tankers hauled every manner of solid and liquid waste to GEMS for more than 20 years, until the landfill closed in 1980.

"You could follow those tanker trucks off the highway and they would come and drop their load there" at GEMS, Gloucester Township Mayor Ann Mullen recalled.

"There was a load of bloated, dead cows that went in there," she said.

The state says the people whose back yards are adjacent to the chain-link fence around GEMS are safe, but residents say they are worried about their property values and their health. They have formed citizens' groups to express their concerns.

"The only thing I know is that it's poisonous," said Natalie Barry, 9, who was spending Columbus Day riding around the neighborhood on her bicycle.

Mary Ash, 8, who was touring with Natalie, knows "it's not OK to play in the mud puddles" behind her house, which is adjacent to the landfill.

More than 100 parties were held responsible when the court-ordered settlement was signed in U.S. District Court in Camden. They range from the township to the companies that generated the waste and the haulers whose trucks delivered it to the landfill.

"The operators dug out the sand and sold it and filled in the hole with trash and made a killing both ways," Mullen said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added the dump to its Superfund list of hazardous landfills in 1982. McClusick said the federal action encouraged the parties to settle in district court because the government has the power to bill them three times the clean-up cost if it has to do the work.

The liability schedule assigns $20.5 million in costs to the companies that produced the waste dumped at GEMS, $4 million to the truckers who delivered, and $4.8 million to the township.

The township expects its insurance companies to pay all but $200,000 of its share of the cleanup costs, township administrator John McPeak said.

"It was a major victory," Mullen said. "That $32.5 million could have been our taxpayers' burden."

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