BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The saga of the Center of Excellence mixed-use development on Route 202/206 is continuing to play out before the Bridgewater Township Planning Board.

More than three hours of questioning and testimony at the board meeting Tuesday night brought no resolution to the case, which has been ongoing since last year.

Applicant attorney Kevin Coakley said at the start of the meeting that he was prepared to rest, unless there were questions—and there were a lot of them, many of which he objected to as being off-point and not related to the direct testimony given by his witnesses.

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The meeting began with several members of the public questioning architect Brandon Diamond, who had testified at the previous meeting on the application regarding building materials and the design and architecture of the commercial buildings planned for the site.

Resident Laura Whalen asked about those involved with the materials planned for the buildings.

“Who was involved in the community, in the composition of materials on the site?” she asked.

Diamond responded it was his architectural firm that did that, not the community.

“Most materials selected were commonly used in projects (lasting) decades,” said Diamond. “None of these (used) are brand-new materials.”

Bridgewater Township Council President, and mayor-elect, Matthew Moench asked if any of the building material are combustible, to which Diamond said they are standard exterior materials under building code, and generally very fire-resistant. Moench also asked about the life-span of the materials, if they will hold up to accidents and the environment and if they will need general replacement in 15 years time.

“They’re designed to hold up to normal wear and tear,” said Diamond, who added that most materials utilize standard color palettes, available from multiple manufacturers.

Bridgewater resident Bill Hobb asked about the lack of a setback on the southern edge of the property, where 10 feet is required.

Coakley said the variance requested on the issue had been due to re-zoning and for no other reason, while township planner Scarlett Doyle said there are two separate locations, with the 10-foot departure being located by the proposed hotel and not the southern border.

“They’re two different topics,” said Doyle.

Another resident, Gaurav Gangoli, questioned Diamond about the mechanical properties and strength of the materials with regard to compression and similar forces. Diamond said the materials as approved are suggested as part of the architectural process, and then examined by a structural engineer.

“They’re all durable materials in the industry,” Diamond said. “They hold up, so it’s why they’re selected on jobs.”

In response to a question about creeping, Diamond replied that the building foundation has been designed to work with the soils, and lessen creeping over time.

“It’s an important part of the foundation,” he said.

The bulk of the evening was spent discussing the presence of benzene on the site, along with landfill materials. Keith Savel, a licensed site remediation professional (LSRP) who had been hired by the township, said the site has been under investigation since 2011.

Savel said that 26 out of 28 areas of concern regarding the presence of benzene have been closed out, with the chemical existing in groundwater on the site along with the landfill, and having been left behind when an underground tank was removed from the property in 2000.

“The contamination is localized,” said Savel, who explained that eight to nine samplings of the groundwater were taken to determine the presence of benzene.

He added that an aggressive treatment process had been undertaken to handle the benzene remediation, including the removal of soil, plus the injection of chemicals into the groundwater, which he said helped the situation but did not completely take care of the problem. He said it had been determined it would take 26 years for the benzene on site to naturally attenuate or reduce, and that the situation will continue to be monitored.

Wells on the property are said to extend down as deep as 110 feet, but benzene had only been located as far down as 20 to 36 feet. Savel said the contaminated area consisted of around 400 square feet, with restrictions established on the groundwater, such as no drinking.

Savel added that DEP permission is needed for contaminated groundwater, with the site to be monitored on a biannual basis. The site had once contained 21,000 parts per billion of benzene, but that number had dropped to 280 parts per billion by last year.

Bridgewater councilman Howard Norgalis asked if the top 20 feet of soil had been removed when the underground tank had been taken out, and Savel replied that there had been no groundwater in the excavation. He added that there had been fractured bedrock underneath the tank, along with veins of fractures that the benzene had traveled through to get into the groundwater.

Some 80 yards of contaminated soil had been excavated and removed in all, Savel said.

Planning board member Evan Lerner asked if there is any likelihood that the area of development could impact the benzene situation, but Savel said he didn’t think so.

“There’s no construction in the area,” said Savel. “If it was residential, I would be concerned.”

He also said, with regard to a Remedial Action Report (RAR), that the benzene plume is not going to migrate off-site, which had been a concern of nearby residents.

DEP approval was acquired to physically screen materials on the site. The landfill was tested, and found to contain a mixture of soil and construction debris, which is to be screened.

The debris will then be removed and discarded, while the soil will be re-used on site. A total of 241,000 cubic yards will be excavated, by the applicant, and then re-used for development.

Doyle said that, in other applications, the township had asked the applicant to underwrite the cost of the LSRP, and asked if the township should actually view the excavation. Savel said he believes it is a good idea, but said his concern is not just for the soil, as soil borings on the site signaled the presence of cinders, brick, metal and other substances.

“It’s a small percentage,” he said. “(We) want to remove it and not place it back on the site. Construction debris belongs in a landfill.”

He told Norgalis he did not know how much of the soil was actually debris, while Coakley mentioned 9.5 acres. Coakley later said the whole application site encompasses 109 acres, including 61 acres in the R-C zone.

Savel said it is also a good practice to send the soil offsite.

One Bridgewater resident said that benzene, a suspected carcinogen, is volatile and could migrate in the 26 years needed to remove it by evaporation.

Coakley objected, but the resident asked if it is safe to have benzene in the environment for a quarter-century, especially near proposed apartments and hotels.

Savel said it is not evaporation that would be used, but oxidation. Savel said an oxidation/reduction reaction would be used via chemical injection to break down the benzene, which is an organic compound.

He also added that the plume is “very localized,” and nowhere near where people are living.

Moench asked about the additional responsibilities of the applicant, the planning board and the township, and Savel said he believes that all the regulation requirements have been met.

Asked what would be going on the part of the site containing benzene, Savel said there will be no new construction. The benzene-containing portion of the site is adjacent to Building JRD-1, and not under it.

Regarding the path of the benzene plume, Savel said that building JRD-2 is in the way, and he also said the structure won’t be demolished. There were also no plans to install additional sewer lines, though he added LSRPs are about site remediation, not landfills.

Norgalis asked what an individual would see if they were allowed on the site today, particularly regarding the plume area. Savel said it would look like the rest of the property, expect for the presence of a metal cap.

“You should be able to find it,” he said.

Bridgewater resident Jeffrey Brookner was told a vapor intrusion study had been done on the building, and that benzene itself turns to gas, similar to radon. Savel also said that borings were taken of basement flooring sub-slabs, and no benzene was detected in the sub-slab air, although the minimum detection level was not exactly zero percent.

Brookner asked about the actual flow of the benzene, and was told that it moves some .0005 feet per day, or about 1.8 feet per year. Savel also said the contaminant levels are going down, and that natural attenuation is an accepted method of remediation.

Norgalis asked about the complexity of the testing done every other year, and Savel said there are six wells on site, including one deep well. The wells had been sampled by previous LSRPs, with eight sampling events having taken place between 2015 and 2018.

The data, Savel said, was submitted to the DEP, and he added there is no reason not to believe the DEP. The well samples had also been tested for substances such as vinyl chloride and chloroform, and Savel said there was nothing found over the DEP groundwater limits.

Savel said that according to field sampling procedures, three volumes of water will be taken. Those samples will be allowed to settle and then sampled by DEP protocol, before being sent to a laboratory to test for the presence of volatile organics.

The DEP is the one who makes the final determination.

Norgalis asked if another chemical injection would make the site “better faster,” and Savel said it could, as pumping out the groundwater is too slow a process. He also said that was why the injection had been utilized the first time, which he added had been a low-pressure injection.

Resident Ross Stander questioned Savel about the benzene, and the latter said that, following a calculated model, the site could be reduced to less than 1 part per billion of benzene in 26 years, although he added it is not an exact science.

“There’s a lot of factors affecting degradation,” he said.

Asked if the benzene plume is unstable, Savel said he was not aware of that, but added that “nothing would surprise me.” He said the concentration of benzene is pretty consistent, and that the compound does not flow like a river.

“I wouldn’t expect it to completely reverse direction,” he said.

Savel also said that a hydraulic slug test could be used, which would put water in to measure the benzene flow, and could thus increase groundwater flow. He also said that “pump and treat” is a viable method, but that the recharging rate of this particular groundwater is slow, and that chemical injection seems to be a more objective treatment in this case.

“With the data I saw, I would do (another) chemical injection,” he said.

Andy Fresco asked if the groundwater will change with the addition of buildings and the like. Savel said there is a drainage plan in place, a new plan where water runoff would be addressed, although he didn’t know exactly where and admitted he was not a stormwater expert.

Fresco asked if a No Further Action letter had been sent, and Savel responded that those are no longer issued and that LSRPs now release Response Action Outcome letters. He agreed that LSRPs will monitor for possible changes, and to make sure the benzene attenuation is following a path.

Resident Diane Mine asked if there were other areas in town that had been tested for benzene, and if residents’ wells were safe. Savel said he didn’t know of any other potential benzene sites, but said that drinking water wells run very deep, past the 20- to 36-foot level where benzene had been found on the applicant site.

He added that benzene is a light compound that wants to float, and that the benzene on the site is in a confined area.

“We know where it is,” said Savel.

The clock moved past 10:15 p.m., when no new testimony was allowed under board regulations, and the crowd of over 75 individuals still had yet to hear from a traffic expert. The meeting was then adjourned, and the case will continue Nov. 18, with an additional meeting date (if necessary) to be determined.