Waiting for years, neighbors of tainted lake finally see prospect of cleanup

The Kirkwood Lake in Voorhees is in Alice Johnston's backyard. She was photographed there on September 26, 2013. ( ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer )
The Kirkwood Lake in Voorhees is in Alice Johnston's backyard. She was photographed there on September 26, 2013. ( ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer )
Posted: February 17, 2014

VOORHEES The neighbors of Kirkwood Lake may have just caught a ray of hope.

For years, homeowners around the Camden County lake have watched in dismay as it has grown shallower and shallower. Other than seasonally attacking the vegetation that grows virulently in the warmer months, there has seemed to be little they could do to save their lake.

The reason: The lake, bordered by Voorhees and Lindenwold, is part of a federal Superfund site cluster - several miles of land and waterways contaminated by paint-makers that operated in the area from the mid-1800s until the late 1970s.

A major cleanup is intended, with Sherwin-Williams, the last of the paint manufacturers at the site, cooperating with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But between the lake's position downstream of the contaminated areas and federal procedures, Kirkwood's cleanup was years away. Other than the county's efforts to rid it of the water-lily-like spatterdocks, no action on the lake had been planned until the eventual full cleanup.

But that may be changing.

As a result of a meeting Tuesday that Rep. Rob Andrews (D., N.J.) helped arrange among representatives of the EPA and Sherwin-Williams, local officials, and scores of residents - including some very upset Kirkwood neighbors - EPA officials say they are willing to consider interim actions to alleviate immediate concerns.

The meeting, at the Voorhees Town Center, was the first that residents could recall with representatives of both the EPA and Sherwin-Williams.

"We have some things to explore now that, frankly, I haven't contemplated before," John Prince, an EPA Region 2 manager, said in an interview later.

Possible remedial actions mentioned at the meeting included partial dredging and a pilot program of a process called in situ stabilization proposed several months ago by engineers working with Rutgers University.

In the latter, a cementlike material would be introduced into the layer of contaminated lake sediment. The contaminated layer would be contained in the material and then shipped away.

Such interim steps, residents believe, would deepen the lake and keep it alive until the EPA cleans it up.

"I'm extremely optimistic," said Alice Johnston of Voorhees, the Kirkwood neighbor who has been leading the fight. "It's a major breakthrough that they're thinking along these lines."

County Freeholder Jeff Nash, who has been advocating for the residents, agreed that what they were hearing was new.

"What's exciting is now the discussion can begin," Nash said. "Before, there was no discussion."

If the EPA eventually approves of interim action at the lake, that doesn't mean the agency will pay for it.

For that to happen, a risk to human health or the environment would have to be shown, according to EPA officials, and they doubted that would be the case.

Possible funders could include the county or Sherwin-Williams.

At the meeting, a Sherwin-Williams representative expressed willingness to work toward solutions on the overall site, which includes parts of Gibbsboro.

Asked Friday about possibly funding the interim work, Sherwin-Williams spokesman Mike Conway said the company was "willing to consider the ideas from the community. We will explore possible options by sitting down with other tech experts from the county, the state, and EPA."

At the meeting, the EPA representatives said they had identified 40 residential properties, many in the vicinity of the lake, for which they proposed remedial action, including removing soil containing materials such as lead and arsenic.

A remediation plan could be ready some time in the summer and work on some of the properties could start next year. The EPA has said the residents, including those by the lake, were not believed to have any immediate health risks from the contamination.

Residents were divided on the EPA proposal, with some reluctant to have the agency work on their properties, but all of the homeowners who spoke made it clear they wanted something done about Kirkwood Lake as soon as possible.

Ed Kelleher of Voorhees, a Kirkwood neighbor who spoke at the meeting, said he just wanted to be able to fish at the lake with his young son, but he said the big cleanup might not happen for 15 years.

"In 15 years, my 3-year-old grandson is off to college," Kelleher said.




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