Photo Courtesy of Bill Wolfe/PEER
A public advocacy group says streams connected to the Fenimore landfill were impaired prior to the reopening of the site. The state has scrapped solar-power plans and is looking for a new contractor.

Allegations are flying as public acrimony mounts over a botched attempt to place a solar farm atop an abandoned landfill in New Jersey.

At the center of the controversy is a New Jersey Dept. of Environmental Protection report that has not yet been made public. Critics allege that NJDEP has delayed its release because the document may show that materials from the landfill impaired water quality in local streams. The agency contends that when the report comes out next month, it will not show any significant and lasting damage to the watershed from the landfill.

However, Larry Ragonese, NJDEP press director, acknowledges that the effort to place a solar farm directly above a landfill did go horribly wrong. During his time in office, Gov. Chris Christie (R) has made New Jersey solar power facilities, many on built brownfield sites, a priority. Most of the projects, many completed in coordination with PSEG, the parent company of New Jersey's largest utility, have been success stories.

But the Fenimore landfill in Roxbury, about 50 miles west of New York City, has been a different matter. Bob Schultz, president of a citizens group called the Roxbury Environmental Action Coalition (REACT), said the problems started in 2012, after the owner of Strategic Environmental Partners, Richard Bernardi, purchased the landfill from the state and received the green light to close the landfill and to build a solar facility at the site.

Around Thanksgiving of that year, residents near the landfill complained of a "rotten-egg" smell. Their children were suffering from nosebleeds and other respiratory problems. They petitioned the state to remove SEP from the job.

NJDEP complied, and SEP was pulled off the project. "We picked the wrong person," says Ragonese. "He did a miserable job of it." Bernardi did not properly line the landfill and brought in "a lot of materials he shouldn't have," Ragonese says. Some of those materials included debris from Superstorm Sandy and construction waste.

NJDEP and Bernardi currently are involved in litigation over the landfill. Bernardi has sought permission to conduct soil sampling, a request that so far has been denied. Separately, Bernardi was convicted of bribing a public official in 1994 but was acquitted of 15 other counts of bribery in a federally funded program. He has said publicly that all charges against him were false. ENR was not able to reach Bernardi.

REACT has since asked NJDEP to conduct a full environmental investigation at the site. The community group also wants NJDEP to remove some 375,000 cu yd of materials that were brought to the landfill, including gypsum and waterlogged debris from Superstorm Sandy, which together formed a hazardous brew that emitted hydrogen sulfide.

But NJDEP plans to use a combination of a gas-extraction system—which is currently in place and has eliminated the rotten-egg smell, the agency says—and a cap over the landfill. A cap would be less expensive than excavating the material and would not expose the community to noxious gases currently trapped in the landfill, says Ragonese.

Bill Wolfe, New Jersey director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a public advocacy group, and a former analyst at NJDEP, says, "What has happened is an outrage. The state DEP has taken a very arrogant approach to the public."

Wolfe says biological monitoring data shows that two streams running around the landfill were impaired. Had that information been made public, the Fenimore never would have received a re-opening permit from the DEP, the site would not have been declared a brownfield site, and the solar project would not have gone forward, Wolfe alleges. The report that includes the biological monitoring data from 2010 "is not a draft—it is being withheld because its findings are deeply embarrassing to the Christie people," he says.

Ragonese denies that the draft report shows anything abnormal, and adds that the final report—part of a routine watershed analysis—will be released in coming weeks. Also this summer, NJDEP plans to put out a request for proposals to cap the site, and begin work on closing the landfill before the end of the year.

REACT's Shultz remains skeptical. NJDEP is "supposed to be protecting the environment, and they're not protecting the environment—they're protecting themselves or the people who are the polluters." He adds, "The township doesn't want to deal with it; they don't want to deal with this whole mess; there's lawsuits going on everywhere—between the township and the owner, and the DEP and the owner … it's the residents that are suffering because of it.