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An array of problems at former landfill site in Princeton

A view of a small section of the solar arrays at the former landfill in Princeton. Photo taken from behind a fence along the landfill property on River Road. Photo: Krystal Knapp.

Less than two years after solar panels were installed on top of the former municipal landfill in Princeton, the soil under and around the panels is eroding, waste from the landfill is exposed, and when it rains, stormwater flows onto the landfill and then into a ditch and nearby wetlands.

In February, an inspector for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection visited the former municipal landfill site on River Road in the northern section of Princeton that borders Montgomery, Rocky Hill and Kingston in order to conduct an annual inspection of the landfill. A report about the Feb. 15 inspection details erosion, waste, and stormwater problems, as well as other issues at the site.

“Erosion gullies observed during the last inspection appear to have gotten worse in depth and width throughout the entire solar array area,” wrote NJDEP Inspector Carole Mercer in a report about her visit to the site that was obtained by Planet Princeton from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, along with other documents and emails about the landfill, through the state’s Open Public Records Act.

“During the inspection, stormwater was observed to be actively flowing onto the landfill from several off-site areas,” Mercer wrote. “The path of the stormwater was observed to be flowing through various gullies across a substantial portion of the landfill…passing through the washout area, and then ultimately discharging into both the wetland located east of the washout area and a stormwater collection ditch that runs west to east along the utility easement road.”

A landfill washout area has continued to expand in depth and width, according to the report. “Stormwater was observed to be actively flowing through exposed waste in the washout area, ultimately discharging into both the wetland area and stormwater drainage system adjacent to the washout area,” Mercer wrote in her report.

During that inspection, Mercer also observed four stockpiles of dirt mixed with solid waste that included asphalt, wood, brick, and plastic in three areas on the former landfill site, and she saw another pile of the same dirt mixed with solid waste at the adjacent sewer department facility, she reported. She also observed other solid waste violations at the sewer department site, noticed a lot of dirt stockpiled at the site, and saw asphalt millings below natural elevation, according to emails. She referred the issues to her agency’s hotline for investigation, and also sent a Princeton official an email about the waste.

“I wanted to reach out to you immediately – prior to our scheduled meeting on Feb. 26 – on an issue that needs your prompt attention,” Mercer wrote to Princeton Director of Infrastructure and Operations Robert Hough. “Four piles of soil mixed with pieces of asphalt, wood, and trash were observed to be staged in several locations on the landfill (and one was near the firing range area). I can only guess that the intent was to spread it out and use it as fill material in various areas of ponding and gullies, as that is where the piles were staged. This material is solid waste, not clean fill, and CANNOT be used for landfill cover, fill, or regrading on any part of Princeton’s landfill and department of public works facility grounds.”

Mercer told Hough all four soil piles would need to be removed from the landfill area and separated from the other materials. The materials would need to be covered while awaiting disposal, and would need to be disposed of as solid waste using a licensed solid waste hauler and a DEP authorized solid waste disposal facility. Mercer requested contact information for the haulers who brought the material to the River Road municipal properties, and copies of disposal manifests once the haulers removed the waste.

“Contaminated soil and soil mixed with solid waste cannot be brought into the yard to be used as fill, landfill cover, or anything else,” Mercer wrote. She also noted that trucking the soil onto the landfill had caused extensive truck tire ruts and gullies that would need to be repaired along with the severe ponding and gullies that already exist in and around the solar arrays.

“I will be reviewing this matter with management regarding the potential issuance of a notice of violation or other applicable enforcement document,” she wrote. “Thank you for your prompt response.”

In her Feb. 20 complaint to the NJDEP hotline, Mercer also reported that “numerous solid waste violations” were observed in Princeton’s department of public works and sewer department yard during her inspection of the adjacent closed landfill. Violations included: “Potentially contaminated soil being accepted and stockpiled; asphalt millings being used as fill, not road base; waste water treatment plant grit spilling out of a containment area; overflowing dumpsters with litter sitting in standing water around them; a significant quantity of tree parts present on site for more than 6 months; and street sweepings being stored uncovered and not in a dumpster.”

In a Feb. 21 response to Mercer, Hough wrote that the piles of dirt and solid waste were trucked in by truckers from New Egypt. “We are aware of the condition. It has not been used, nor will it. It was supposed to be clean fill material,” Hough wrote. “We have not done anything with the piles because of the soft site conditions. Ultimately, when site conditions permit, it will be handled appropriately and in accordance with your directions.”

On Feb. 26, Mercer and some of her colleagues met with Hough to discuss issues at the landfill, according to emails. Mercer then sent Hough a list of action items to be completed by the municipality that included:

-Securing the dirt piles with tarps “while they are awaiting removal and
disposal as solid waste by an authorized hauler and authorized solid
waste disposal facility…Disposal manifests to be submitted to DEP.
This work will commence once the landfill surface has had a chance to
dry out so that additional ruts are not created.”

-Submitting a site-wide stormwater and washout repair corrective action plan that would be reviewed by the NJDEP, and revising the plan by the end of April. The plan would need to include: A correction of deficiencies listed in the DEP inspection report, stormwater management plans for preventing and redirecting off-site stormwater from flowing onto the landfill, regrading and lining of the swale, corrective action for the erosion gullies under the solar arrays and the ruts caused by trucks, and a construction schedule that would include the repair of the washout area and the completion of all of the other items.

Mercer wrote that the municipality would also be required to maintain the landfill side slopes by removing trees and plants from the side slopes and, if needed, seeding them with a grass mixture, and mowing the grass regularly. The municipality would need to obtain any necessary DEP land use approvals, which would be needed because the side slope areas border some wetlands and wetland buffer zones. The municipality would also have to have the solar arrays numbered correctly.

“Due to the test pits revealing a much larger landfill footprint than originally expected, Princeton is to thoroughly inspect all ‘expanded’ areas, including edges and side slopes, to ensure that no waste is exposed; any exposed waste discovered must be covered by two feet of clean soil,” wrote Mercer, adding that the municipality also needed to submit its overdue groundwater monitoring reports for the site.

In March, Mercer asked Hough for an update in an email. In a March 15 response, he wrote that the piles of “dirty” dirt had been covered with tarps and that officials were working to have them removed. “I will check the status of the purchase order etc. I thought it had been sent to you,” Hough wrote. “We met with NJR yesterday and they have been advised about the request to number both ends of the arrays. Staff has been working with NJAL to get all appropriate reports to NJDEP.”

On May 21, Mercer asked for another update by the end of the week. Hough answered on May 28, saying he emailed her the previous week but the email didn’t appear to go through. Most of the items on her list were still not addressed as of the end of May.

Hough wrote that the “dirty dirt piles” were removed from inside the fenced solar area. “They are together in one area at the River Road property and are covered with tarps,” he wrote. “We are still working with the supplier to have them properly removed.”

Mercer noted in her May 21 email that the municipality’s site-wide storm water and washout repair corrective action plan was due that day. The DEP had deemed the plan deficient in March. “Princeton and our consultant, T&M Associates, is still working on an acceptable cost-effective solution,” wrote Hough in his May 28 email.

The deadline for this work on the landfill slopes was the end of June 2019. “Princeton has not done this work yet, however, it is on our schedule
to begin next week,” Hough wrote. “The work will be completed by the end of June 2019.”

The solar array numbering was also not done yet. “Princeton has advised NJR in writing that this number must be completed,” Hough wrote. “NJR has acknowledged same in writing. However, the work has not been completed.”

Mercer also noted that an annual report was due from the municipality that covered an inspection by the town of all expanded areas of the landfill, including edges and side slopes, to ensure that no waste is exposed. Any exposed waste discovered would be required to be covered by two feet of clean soil, and any newly covered areas would need to be seeded. Hough wrote back that T&M Associates was preparing the annual report and it would be submitted shortly.

The municipality also had not submitted quarterly groundwater monitoring reports for the landfill site since Oct. 17 of 2018, Mercer wrote, noting that two reports were overdue. She asked Hough to submit the overdue reports within a week of her email. Hough wrote back and said the groundwater monitoring reports for October 2018, January 2019 and April 2019 were sent to the NJDEP that week.

On June 5, NJDEP officials noted that they had trouble reaching Hough by phone regarding the municipality’s financial plan for the landfill. They called once in April and once in June and got Hough’s voicemail, and never received a call back. “The plan needs to be redone, it’s inadequate and missing the schedules and narrative,” wrote one NJDEP official. “I’m attaching what they submitted and the template for what is required.”

Last month, Planet Princeton requested documents, emails and reports from the municipality related to the solar arrays, the landfill, groundwater monitoring, and consultants’ reports for the landfill 2018 and 2019. The municipality issued a blanket denial of the request, citing the Mercer County Prosecutor’s investigation into alleged illegal dumping at the adjacent sewer department facility. Three employees, including Hough, have been fired as a result of issues at the sewer department site. Planet Princeton has filed a lawsuit in Mercer County Superior Court in an effort to obtain the public records.

Planet Princeton has also sought the minutes for municipal sewer operating committee meetings for 2019, but none of the minutes for the meetings are posted on the municipality’s website.

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  1. It seems incomprehensible that Bob Hough was either willing to try or able to keep all these communications to himself. Not one single email about this including the Health Officer or Administrator? Hough was put on leave then fired as the fall guy here, and it feels like that was deserved, but who is checking to see if Health Officer and Administrator also failed to act? Who is scouring the thousands of likely emails between those three people over the last year or two? Is it Dashield himself checking? Seems inappropriate. Is it the Police? Reporting what they find to who? Dashield? It’s textbook corruption or at least is ripe for such with Dashield still
    In charge while this is ongoing.

  2. Remarkable that Mayor and Council aren’t looking at their Administrator to take some responsibility here. He is after all the supervisor of all employees. Mayor and Council don’t oversee Hough or other staffers they oversee Dashield. Accountability is missing at the top spot and Mr. Dashield stumbles on through one problem after the other.

  3. Is it any wonder why they wanted to keep the emails undercover? On its face it appears Bob Hough was not doing his job and when faced with official notice of violations delayed and then went incommunicado. Perhaps as a matter of policy the inspection reports should also be sent to a member of the administration – like the administrator and/or mayor so there is no chance of ‘hiding’ from the consequences of putting the municipality at risk. Or did the Administrator get cc’d? the mayor? Gosh, I sure hope not.

  4. Get some pop corn. The show is just getting started. The public records that Planet Princeton has requested many reveal more.

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