Railing against loop plan

By Nina Rizzo
Asbury Park Press
Toms River Bureau
Sunday, April 28, 2002

Bay Head-Several hundred area residents, claiming the state has a history of environmental neglect at the Bay Head Rail Yard, are expected to attend Wednesday's public hearing to discuss New Jersey Transit's proposed upgrades at the town's only industrial site.

The hearing will focus on the environmental assessment of the $16 million plan that NJ Transit officials say will allow them to remediate contaminated soil and alleviate other residential concerns, such as excessive noise, lighting and diesel fumes.

But critics say the project should not move forward until NJ Transit completes the cleanup of its 51-acre site, which contains 33 acres of wetlands inside the so-called loop.  The rail yard borders Twilight Lake, a haven for bird-watchers and a popular tourist attraction, and several residential streets only a stone's throw away from the tracks.  Some of those houses are shielded from the rail yard by a thin layer of trees, others by a line of shrubs.
“Trust is a big issue here, not only with NJ Transit but with DEP,” said William C. Sullivan Jr., a Springfield attorney who was hired by the borough to fight the plan.  “If this site was operated by a private industrial concern, it would never have been allowed to get away with (polluting the land) for 30 or 40 years.”

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 (DEP).

History of Pollution
NJ Transit, which inherited much of the pollution it has been forced to remove, has made strides in remediating the loop, which sits on at the southern end of the North Jersey Coast Line, since it took ownership on 1982, state officials said.

“Environmentally sound decisions have been made from a water perspective and a wetlands perspective,” Elaine Makatura, a spokeswoman for the DEP, said.

State and county officials have documented numerous oil spills since 1970, according to Sullivan’s findings.  In 1980, for example, when Conrail still owned the property, DEP found several dump sites in the yard and “the entire yard … saturated with oil”.  A year later, the DEP reported four 55-gallon drums of a wood preservative were leaking in an illegal landfill in the middle of the loop.

NJ Transit has had its share of spills during its tenure, too, Sullivan said.  Some of the infractions included a 2,000-gallon overflow spill that reached the lake in December 1985; a 50- to 60-gallon discharge of motor oil from drums with open valves in April 1990; and a 50-gallon release from a ruptured fuel hose 12 months later.  Last January, the agency was ordered to haul away leaking drums, rail ties and other debris found on its property.

Sullivan wrote a May 2001 letter to municipal officials outlining three decades of infractions, which he said, “reveal a disturbing history of flagrant disregard for the sensitive environment in which the facility is located.”

Much of the pollution was caused by coal ash, a product of old steam locomotives, which was commonly used throughout the 19th and 20th centuries as industrial fill, and fuel for diesel-powered engines used by both Conrail and NJ Transit, its officials said.

Making Strides
The last water-quality inspection, conducted by the DEP on March 12 at the tail yard, showed there were no surface-water violations.  Groundwater and soil contamination are still a problem.  The groundwater is being purified through carbon filters before it goes back into the earth.  None of that groundwater reaches the lake or any other points off-site, Makatura said.

Eight groundwater-monitoring wells were stuck in the ground in 1998, and the amount of oil in them has been “diminishing significantly since then,” Ken Miller, an NJ Transit spokesman, said.

NJ Transit officials said the agency's proposal includes a component to remove the contaminated soil before constructing a 950-foot-long inspection track; a 35-foot-high, 185-foot-long and 102-foot-wide fueling canopy; and a 30-ton sand silo.

Moreover, the plan calls for the replacement of the last of NJ Transit's antiquated fueling systems.  Trains now take turns filling up at a single-walled fuel tanker, circa 1940.  The new system includes a 50,000-gallon, double-compartment, above-ground storage tank for diesel fuel and a 10,000-gallon, triple-compartment, above-ground storage tank for lubricating oil.  These tanks will have above-ground pipes that stretch across the nine tracks to reduce the need for shuffling trains throughout the night during the refueling and maintenance process, Miller said.

These upgrades are required by the Federal Railroad Administration to comply with the latest regulations.

In August, the DEP granted NJ Transit the necessary wetlands permits to modernize its fueling and maintenance operations.  This action infuriated activists who claim the land is still seeping oil and causing outlying vegetation to wilt.

The borough and six residents are challenging that permit.

“NJ Transit will tell you this will fix the environmental problems from the past, but they are only excavating the contaminated soil where the project is,” Sullivan said.  “They never did a statewide remediation inspection.  DEP never required it.”

Miller conceded that the lake has never been tested.  The retention basin that leads to the tidal body, however, is tested frequently.

“Based on what we're seeing, there is no evidence that contamination is spreading from the site,” he said.

Three Ocean County legislators sent a letter Thursday to George Warrington, executive director for NJ Transit, asking him to put the brakes on this project until the contamination is removed.

“If this were a private developer, the developer would have to address the entire area before a government agency would grant a permit to move forward,” the legislator wrote.

Several residents, along with borough officials, wrote letters asking the federal government to require an environmental-impact statement before the project is approved.

Residents Worry
Many residents who live near the rail yard, which services seven trains during the night, worry that their concerns of excessive noise, lighting and diesel fumes will only intensify with the proposed changes.

Some activists have even gone so far as to say the planned canopy, which would be as high as the tallest structure the town has allowed to be built, would discourage tourists from visiting this tiny resort.

“This town will close down if they do this,” Susan Shore, an Osborne Avenue resident who was appointed to serve as a liaison between the borough government and the community on a volunteer basis.

Cynthia Ryan is the general manager for the Grenville Hotel and Restaurant on Main Street.  While she commiserates with the residents who dread the thought of a canopy becoming part of the lake's backdrop, Ryan does not believe her business will suffer.

“We have many guests from New York and walk from the train,” Ryan said.  “I honestly don't think the structure will have any bearing on (them).”

Shore and other opponents of the plan said they want state officials to treat the rail yard as if it were in a residential zone because some of the houses are only 20 feet from this site.  State Sen. Andrew R. Ciesla and Assemblymen James W. Holzapfel and David W. Wolfe, all R-Ocean, echoed in that sentiment in their letter to NJ Transit's new executive director.

“NJ Transit claims that contaminants previously spilled onto the property are within industrial limits, but ignores the fact that there are homes just a few feet away from the tracks,” Wolfe said in a prepared statement that accompanied a copy of the letter.

When Nick Paolella bought the land along Wyndham Drive, township officials were pleased with his plans to build five homes, including one for himself, he said.   There had only been two houses on the block that borders the rail yard when he started building in the early 1980s; the rest of the marshy land was undeveloped.

“The town deemed this mosquito-breeding area,” Paolella said Friday, taking a break from his gardening.  “They were happy to see it developed.”

Paolella, an attorney and former Bergen County state senator, settled into his new home in the spring of 1987 and did not find the rail yard to be bothersome.  But that winter, he would learn that trains cannot be shut down in temperatures under 30 degrees and leafless trees don't provide much of a natural buffer.

“We grew to live with that,” he said, noting that vibrations from trains would cause household trinkets to rattle if the windows were not shut tight.

“I came in knowing there was a railroad, but I assumed it was run in a reasonable fashion and that I wouldn't be blown out of my living room,” he said.

Paolella copes with the noise and smell of diesel fumes.  Bit his greatest concern is that the upgrades will lead to an intensified use – despite NJ Transit's adamant denial that it has any such plans.

If anything, he is hoping NJ Transit will add sound barriers and storm drains to its plans.

He showed a reporter the makeshift wall and plantings he added to the border of his property to prevent further flooding damage.

His neighbors filed a damage claim with NJ Transit after a winter 2001 storm flooded their properties.  One family, the Britts, received compensation from the agency because a culvert pipe backed up and caused part of the problem, Miller said.

Another neighbor who bought one of Paolella’s houses finally sold her house after it sat on the market for quite awhile.  Linda Keating did not wish to be interviewed in detail.

“I sold my house.  I'm not interested up stirring up any trouble,” she said.  “I just want to leave.”

Nina Rizzo: (732) 557-5734.

back to article page