Should Fenimore Air Monitor Spikes Warrant Emergency Alerts?

A Google Earth image of the former Fenimore Landfill showing the cap installed by the state Department of Environmental Protection to help stop odors. Credits: Google Earth

ROXBURY, NJ – Air monitors near the closed Fenimore Landfill recently reported concentrations of hydrogen sulfide way above the levels that are supposed to spark emergency alerts by the township, but no alerts were issued.

The township, last year, agreed to immediately warn residents via its emergency notification system when the 60-minute average levels of the putrid gas exceed 100 parts per billion (ppb). However, the alerts did not take place even though air monitors recently reported hydrogen sulfide (H2S) levels as high as 12,000 ppb.

“What’s been happening is we’re getting these spikes on the monitors … and they (the township) should be sending out an alert, as per their protocol, but they are not doing that,” said Bob Schultz, president the Roxbury Environmental Action Coalition (REACT) citizen group. He said the alerts are supposed to go out over the emergency alert system to which residents can subscribe.

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However, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said reports of skyrocketing H2S from the monitors were  likelycaused by temporary equipment glitches, possibly the result of frigid temperatures, not by real escapes of gas from the closed dump.

"There have been no emissions of the types REACT talks about," said DEP Spokesman Larry Ragonese. "There have been cold weather malfunctions in the township's monitoring equipment and their consultant is trying to make sure it doesn't occur again."

Ragonese, stressing he can't speak on behalf of the town, said "common sense" should determine when emergency alerts are issued, especially when it comes to devices that sometimes experience glitches. "The town doesn't want to send people running and scurrying needlessly ... and causing angst when there's no need for it," he said. 

In an email sent to Roxbury Township Manager Christopher Raths on Jan. 14, REACT member Bill Morrow complained about the situation, citing readings at “ROX 6,” an air monitor on Lazarus Drive.

“Can you please explain why no alerts were sent out despite extremely high readings on ROX 6?” he asked. “My wife and daughter are home today, and when levels are high, they are instructed to turn on our air purifiers and shut the heat off to minimize toxic gas in our attic space from entering the house.”

Morrow pointed to an October 2014 letter from the township to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a branch of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in which Roxbury spelled out its plan for dealing with high H2S readings. In the letter, Raths said Roxbury would issue the alerts if the 60-minute average of H2S exceeds 100 ppb and it would also open the township “respite centers” (where people can go to escape the smell) if the centers were closed.

“Why is the alert system not being used as currently defined?” asked Morrow. “This is more than several times now in the past few weeks that no alerts have been sent out, when they should have, according to township protocols.”

Raths would only say yesterday that he is investigating the matter. "We have our experts viewing the data and we anticipate a response as early as week's end," said the manager. "As to the condition of the landfill, when we have more information, we will get it out to the public. We've been fortunate that, when these incidents occur, the DEP provides an assessment of what is going on at the site itself."

Mayor Jim Rilee said the township is currently "reviewing the protocls and assessing the situation with the professionals." The mayor pointed out the township reaches out to experts when there are spikes "to see if there are any odors of gas at the time of the spike."

Schultz said he can understand a reluctance to issue emergency alerts if the monitor results were caused by a malfunction. However, he said town officials should "err on the side of caution" instead of choosing to delay. "What if it was a real spike and they delay it three hours?" he asked. "By then, somebody could be overcome with gas ... They put all these protocols in place and now they are not following them."


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