Pollution study sought on Bay Head rail yard plan

Published in the Asbury Park Press 5/02/02

LAVALLETTE -- An environmental impact study is needed to determine the extent of pollution at the Bay Head Rail Yard and whether NJ Transit's proposed upgrades there would further degrade surrounding wetlands and waterways.

That was the consensus of nearly 300 people who attended last night's public hearing at St. Bonaventure Church to discuss the draft environmental assessment of NJ Transit's $16 million plan to modernize the rail yard's maintenance and fueling operations.

Comments received from nearly three dozen residents, environmentalists and mass transit advocates will be forwarded to the Federal Railroad Administration, which could require further environmental studies before making a final decision on the project.

NJ Transit says its proposal will alleviate residential concerns about excessive noise, lighting and diesel fumes. But residents who purchased their homes next to a rail yard with a long history of environmental abuses said that's cold comfort.

"I think NJ Transit has an obligation to be a good neighbor," said William C. Sullivan Jr., a Springfield attorney hired by the borough to fight the plan. "They have to obey the law. They haven't done that, and they haven't given residents a reason to believe they will do so."

The rail yard, built in 1872, has a long record of environmental abuses and is still considered a contaminated site by the state Department of Environmental Protection. State and Ocean County officials have documented numerous oil spills and illegal dumping since 1970. Residents also claim wetlands were illegally filled in. NJ Transit took over the site in 1982.

Sullivan and several residents are calling for a sitewide inventory of the 33 acres of wetlands inside the railroad loop at the end of the North Jersey Coast Line, as well as a look at how much pollution may have crept into Twilight Lake, a tidal body that feeds into the Barnegat Bay estuary.

The DEP did not require such a review before granting all necessary wetlands permits. Bay Head is challenging the Coastal Area Facility Review Act permit, which was approved in August. The borough's September request is still under review, said Fred Mumford, a DEP spokesman.

A water-quality inspection conducted by the DEP on March 12 at the rail yard -- Bay Head's only industrial site -- showed there were no surface water violations. Groundwater and soil contamination is still a problem, but there are no signs that the pollution is spreading off the 51-acre site, state officials said. Not everyone is convinced that the days of oil spills -- or their effects on Bay Head's sensitive ecosystem -- are a thing of the past.

Bob Reddington of Lake Avenue spent most of his life on the water. He said he knows an oil spill when he sees one. "Early in the morning, there's a sheen on the northern end of the lake. Once the wind kicks up, it disappears. There's a leak from somewhere, but it's not visible during the day," Reddington said, adding that even the raccoons and ducks know enough to steer clear of that part of the lake.

NJ Transit's proposal calls for remediation of the contaminated soil before constructing a 950-foot-long inspection track and a 35-foot-high fueling canopy that stretches over nine of the 12 tracks. Under the plan, a 1928 tanker car that has been used to fuel trains since 1940 will be replaced with a 50,000-gallon, double-compartment, above-ground storage tank and a 10,000-gallon, triple-compartment storage tank for lubricating oil. These tanks will be connected to above-ground pipes that stretch over the tracks, eliminating the need to shuffle the seven trains throughout the night during refueling and maintenance.

Residents also pleaded with the agency to consider electrifying the 16-mile stretch of tracks between Long Branch and Bay Head. Arrigo Conti, West Lake Avenue, blasted the agency for spending $146 million on 33 new diesel locomotives for the state's mass transit system. He questioned why such an investment is being made at a time when NJ Transit is saying it cannot afford to make the $120 million to $150 million investment on electrification.

Ken Miller, a NJ Transit spokesman, said the agency intends to electrify the tracks at some point but does not have the money now. The new diesel trains cannot be converted for electric use when the line is electrified.

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an advocate for mass transit, contended in a news release yesterday that the project would delay the electrification of the North Jersey Coast Line by at least 50 years.

back to article page