Roxbury citizens group wants to join legal fight over control of Fenimore Landfill

A citizens group dedicated to cleaning up the troubled Fenimore Landfill in Roxbury is seeking to join a lawsuit over future control of the site.

A motion to intervene as a party in the suit, filed by the Roxbury Environmental Action Coalition, comes on the heels of Roxbury Township being granted permission in late June to intervene in the litigation.

The owner of the site, Strategic Environmental Partners, is suing the state Department of Environmental Protection, which seized the landfill in 2013 after residents complained about noxious odors and hydrogen sulfide emissions were detected there.

But even though Roxbury Township’s attorney, Anthony Bucco, said its goal is “protecting the health and safety and welfare of residents,” REACT wants its own “place at the table,” said the group’s president, Bob Schultz.

“That will give us the best chance to get results,” Schultz said in an interview. “We’re looking for the best possible outcome so the residents are protected.”

“The DEP and the township are both in litigation with SEP, and as a result, several factors have significant potential to bias a remediation approach or settlement that may not be in the best interest of Roxbury residents,” he added in a statement.

Bill Morrocco, vice president of REACT, said in a statement, “It’s the residents — not township officials, the DEP or SEP — who won’t escape the direct impact of decisions made about the Fenimore Landfill site. Residents want their safe, peaceful and rural township back that they decided to raise a family in, free from industrial exhaust stacks and free from the threats of water and air pollution.”

“Residents demand a permanent solution that will restore the community and rebound property values, something that no party has brought to the table yet,” Morocco added.

REACT is represented in the suit by Princeton attorney R. William Potter, who said in his motion to intervene that the citizens group would have a “constructive and independent” role in the litigation, according to a statement issued by REACT.

Potter, in an interview, said the residents “are looking for a settlement or resolution of a permanent nature. My clients don’t want to have to live with a series of temporary fixes.”

Potter said the residents are pleased Roxbury Township intervened, but being involved as a party provides “insurance” that the residents “will have all the documents and discovery and will be better informed.”

Schultz said there are still “occasional” odors coming from the landfill and added that he wants the ground tested to determine if chemicals are present that might be polluting homeowners’ wells.

Bucco firmly stated last month he does not want the DEP to give the landfill back to SEP, pointing out that SEP caused the problems in the first place.

But Schultz said he doesn’t know whether he prefers SEP or DEP as the future owner.

“Being at the table will help us decide which is the best,” Schultz said.

The landfill had been closed since the late 1970s when SEP reopened it in 2011 with plans to cap it with additional debris and install a solar generating facility there.

But following nearly a year of complaints about noxious odors and hydrogen sulfide emissions coming from the landfill, the DEP seized control of the landfill in June 2013 and installed a gas collection and burnoff system it credits for virtually eliminating the rotten egg-like odors that started in late 2012.

But in November 2014, an appeals court overturned the seizure, saying the DEP didn’t have the authority to shut down SEP’s operation under the Legacy Landfill Law that Gov. Chris Christie had signed the same day.

The case headed back to Superior Court in Morristown, where the DEP was ordered to prove its case for a takeover.

The DEP must prove that there was an emergency environmental situation when it seized the landfill.

Meanwhile, DEP officials have vowed to continue the cleanup process and refused to turn the landfill back to SEP.

SEP attorney Matthew Fredericks commented in a statement, “SEP welcomes REACT’s participation. We think the residents of Roxbury should be involved in the process of determining the future of the Fenimore Landfill. The landfill needs to be capped, but it doesn’t have to be by SEP.

“We’d like to work with REACT and the other interested parties to find a method of remediating the landfill that benefits all parties, which is certainly possible. Although the Appellate Division has ruled that the NJDEP’s takeover of the site was illegal, SEP recognizes the practical difficulties of just ordering the NJDEP off the property, which is why SEP has proposed the formation of a committee of interested parties, including REACT, to work cooperatively toward the goal of finally getting the landfill capped,” Fredericks added.

Fredericks had previously said Roxbury Township’s intervention in the suit was unnecessary, because Roxbury was already a party to various Fenimore-related cases. However, he noted, he didn’t oppose the township’s intervention.

Ben Horowitz may be reached at bhorowitz@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @HorowitzBen. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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