The walls came tumbling down

| 28 Sep 2015 | 11:44

By Nathan Mayberg
Dozens of structures at the former Nepera site in Harriman, an inactive hazardous waste site, have been demolished in recent months as part of a cleanup by its new owners.

According to a construction official on the scene of the Nepera demolition this week, about 100 structures have been demolished since December. The cleanup could be completed within weeks.

The former Nepera property off Route 17 is now owned by St. Louis-based Environmental Liability Transfer (ELT), who are part of a consent decree in 2013 with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) for remedial action to cleanup the plant site. Chemicals such as mercury, benzene, toluene and xylene were found to have contaminated the groundwater at the property, according to a 2013 consent order between the property's current and former owners and the DEC.

ELT has plans to clean up the 130-acre property according to their website. Their long term plans for the site are not clear. Messages left at the company's offices were not returned.

The cleanup of the site has been occurring at the same time that the village of Harriman has been trying to address water quality issues with elevated levels of radiological alpha emitters last year.

The Orange County Department of Health believes the radioactivity in the water is naturally occurring.

But that doesn't explain how the radiation levels spiked last year.

The Nepera plant, which is down the road from the town's water plant, has been closed for 10 years but it is considered an inactive hazardous waste site where numerous chemicals were found that could pose a threat to the groundwater and nearby Ramapo River, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Whether that means the village's water wells have been affected is unknown.

Village and county officials don't believe so. Orange County Department of Health Commissioner Eli Avila said in February through an email sent by former county spokesman Dain Pascocello, that he believed the radiation contamination in the village's water wells is naturally occurring in the rock formation that runs through Harriman. However, it is not clear what caused the village's Alpha emitter levels to spike in its water wells last summer after more than a year of no testing violations. Since that summer, the village of Harriman's water wells have continually tested above the allowable level for Alpha emitters, which are radiological.

Until last year, the village's water had not violated state code for the presence of alpha emitters in the water since 2012. Before that, the village had not been in violation of state sanitation codes in its water since 2008 when it exceeded the maximum contaminant levels for Uranium. In March, the Orange County Department of Health notified the village that its North Main and River Road treatment plants were again in violation of state sanitary code. The annual average for alpha at the North Main Street well was 26.8 picocuries per liter for the annual period ending in March, which is 28 percent higher than the annual level recorded at that well in January. For decades, the former manufacturing plant which has since been demolished, produced pharmaceuticals and other chemicals. At the time of the plant's closing, a hazardous waste incinerator was used on the premises. DEC records show that the site was plagued by serious chemical contamination issues for decades. A 1994 order by the DEC found that benzene, a known human carcinogen, was found in the groundwater of the site at a rate of 17,000 times the ambient groundwater standard. A 1998 consent order between the DEC and the owners of the Nepera plant required the Lasdon Estate to pay a $13 million into a remediation trust to clean up the property. That amount needed to remediate the site was later increased to $18.6 million. The reason is not clear and multiple requests by The Photo News to DEC spokeswoman Wendy Rosenbach to speak directly with DEC officials knowledgeable about the case were not fulfilled. In 2007, the DEC documented site-wide soil contamination at the former plant, primarily for mercury, with some localized areas of arsenic and PCB contamination. Groundwater contaminant levels decreased after remediation and no drinking water sources were affected, according to information provided by Rosenbach. The investigations also found mercury sediment contamination in segments of the adjacent Ramapo River.

ELT is working with the former owners to complete an additional remedial investigation, according to the DEC.

According to ELT's website, the Harriman property "had significant soil and groundwater issues. The sale of this site to ELT was designed to remove challenging legacy issues from the balance sheet of the specialty chemical manufacturer."

Harriman Mayor Stephen Welle doesn't believe the Nepera site is the source of the village's water contamination problems. Before his March re-election, Welle said local residents didn't complain much to him about the water problem and are more concerned about the local sewage plant. Meanwhile, the village is replacing gauges at the River Road Well House, which has been shut down along with another well since the water started testing positive for elevated levels of Alpha emitters. The gauges will help with the flow of the water as the village seeks to mix different wells together. The village's engineers and a hydrogeologist are forming plans for new pipes to blend the wells, Welle said.

Consent Decree
According to the 2013 consent decree between the DEC, ELT and former owners, a remediation plan was five years in the making.

There have been several remediative actions at the Harriman site since 1998 under DEC supervision.

ELT was found to have violated the Environmental Conservation Law by releasing mercury-contaminated water from the lagoon at the former Nepera property into the Ramapo River in violation of Statewater Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits, according to documents from the DEC.

ELT was asked to provide a work plan to the DEC which was being reviewed earlier this year, Rosenbach said.

The DEC has also ordered Nepera and the Warner-Lambert Company, to investigate the clay liner at the bottom of the lagoon at the site to determine whether it is effective in preventing mercury migration into the Ramapo River.

Michael Edelstein, founder of Orange Environment, is familiar with alpha emitters, since they can emit from radon, which he wrote a book about.

Edelstein said radon has been found in the air in Orange County.

It is possible that the alpha emitters are from decaying uranium or radon underneath the ground, which is naturally occurring, he said.

If, however, the sudden elevated tests results of alpha emitters are from human activity, one possible source could be fracking fluid, he said.

In 2013, the legislature voted to ban using fluid from hydraulic fracking in salting mix used on county roads, after Orange Environment lobbied the county legislature.

In late 2013, the legislature also voted to ban wastewater, or brine, from hydraulic fracturing from being accepted at the county's wastewater treatment plants, including one in Harriman.

Alpha emitters can be from uranium, radium, radon, plutonium, thorium and americium according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Dr. Edward Stein, a Harriman resident, said he continues to drink bottled water while the village attempts to correct its water issues.

"Until we hear for some reason that the water is clear."