As court date looms, NJSEA meets and again ignores residents’ concerns

The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority met once again July 18. Residents of Kearny attended the meeting, albeit in smaller numbers than previously. But the message remained unified and it was no less louder than in previous months: putting a gas-collection system in at the landfill is cute and certainly necessary — but nothing less than 100%, full cap-and-closure, will suffice.

And, as was the case in May and June, NJSEA commissioners, who are appointed by the governor, refused to answer any questions posed by members of the public “due to ongoing litigation,” according to John Ballantyne, the chairman of the authority.

Fourth Ward Councilman Gerald Ficeto addressed the NJSEA toward the meeting’s end and delivered, perhaps, the most dramatic plea of the day.

“You would like this gallery to be respectful so you can document the questions and concerns of our residents,” Ficeto said, referring to an earlier moment when Ballantyne scolded audience members for speaking out of turn out of frustration. “However, our residents feel like this commission and this agency is not being respectful to our Town of Kearny or its residents.

“The questions that we ask — and I was assured on my way out the door at the last meeting by one of your attorneys — that the answers would be posted (online.) We’re not looking for sanitized answers — we’re looking for raw data, the truth. They said they’d monitor during work hours, but we have to live here 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And those monitors are going off regularly with readings over 30 PPB.

“The workers are wearing a four-gas meter. Can the agency supply four-gas meters for the entire town of Kearny so we can monitor and wear those safety devices the way the workers do?”

After about eight seconds of stunned silence, Ballantyne, in response, said he’d put the answer “on the website.”

“The sarcasm is not appreciated,” Ficeto said in response to Ballantyne’s delayed reply. “There’s no sarcasm,” Ballantyne shot back. “So our health is of no importance to this agency,” Ficeto then said. “It’s extremely important,” was Ballantyne’s reply. “If it is important, please close down the landfill, put an impermeable cap on it, complete the gas (collection) system and do it now,” Ficeto then said to eventual applause.

Mayor Alberto G. Santos, meanwhile, took exception with the authority’s response to recent H2S readings. The NJSEA blamed the wind direction for exceptionally high readings and said it’s possible they came from “a different source on Bergen Avenue.”

“It’s really creative fiction,” Santos said.

Santos noted  the importance of half-hour measuring periods and the responses from the NJSEA’s engineering firm.

“I guess we’re making progress but we’re not applying the half-hour standards,” the mayor said of SCS Engineers, the company monitoring the readings.

Some of the readings were staggeringly high — we’ll include them, listed by the highest readout to the lowest.

Santos went on to hold the NJSEA responsible for the mess we’re in now.

“We want accountability,” he said. “And a permanent closure as we stated previously. We want all emissions stopped. Part of it is the gas-collection system … hopefully the engineers got it right. On Sept. 17 or whatever that date is, we’ll see if it starts to work … but as I’ve said, this is the worst thing any agency has done. It has exposed residents to a toxic chemical on almost a daily basis. And it’s not just smelling — it’s health effects. And you’re still fighting it. You’re fighting it through these reports … you’re fighting it through litigation and I understand it’s what you have to go through.

“But at some point, realize this could be a catastrophe in the making, even worse than it is already. And the quicker you put this to a halt, a permanent halt, the quicker residents of Kearny can feel safe at night again — and the better it will be for us, the better it will be for this agency.”

Kearny’s Health Officer Ken Pincus followed Santos. He highlighted how the toxins being released by the landfill are especially dangerous to the elderly and young people.

“I will not allow our town to be the next Flint, Michigan,” Pincus, referring to the lead-in-the-drinking-water crisis that city is experiencing, said to applause. “Not on my watch. That being said, I will see you at trial next (this) week.”

He also noted that he had to close a recreation facility because of elevated H2S.

“It was only recently I had to close the Harvey Field due to high readings from the Keegan Landfill,” Pincus said. “When these reports started coming in, the NJSEA denied these emissions were coming from the Keegan Landfill. And the NJSEA refused to take corrective action. I kept having to reassure complaining Kearny residents we were working on a solution as quickly as possible. … The residents simply wanted to live in a safe environment — nothing more. What residents didn’t know is they were potentially exposed longer than they realized.”

Kearny resident and community activist Melanie Ryan also addressed the authority. She took exception that it takes 24 to 72 hours to get readings posted on the NJSEA’s website and doesn’t allow parents to know whether it’s safe for children to go outside to play. She also reminded the commissioners there was a fire at another landfill the day before the meeting.

“They say they’ll be putting a tarp down to keep the gases in,” Ryan said. “The fire last night was of the protective tarp that was laid down during the non-work hours. It was 100% a different landfill but it’s the same type of tarp (to be laid at Keegan) as far as we know because we’re only given partial information. So if the tarp can burn on the left side of the street, it can burn on the right side of the street.”

Ryan also got silence — like most others did — when she asked if the NJSEA had fire-suppression equipment on-hand at the landfill.

Meanwhile, The Observer also spoke with residents who did not speak at the meeting, but who witnessed it.

Mariana Cirella, 37, of Harrison, says she attended the meeting to “see it all in person” since she hadn’t yet been to one.

“I am disgusted,” she said. “These people sat up there and didn’t say a single word! I know they can’t because of litigation but really? I saw the video of an older meeting and they said they put answers on their website when questions get asked. I don’t believe it for a minute. I don’t know why I bothered to come — these people told me nothing I don’t already know.”

Michael Katz, a resident of Kearny, was also a first-time attendee. He says he went to bring information back to his neighbors because he claims most don’t even know there’s a crisis at the landfill.

“I was surprised to find out a lot of my neighbors didn’t even know what was happening,” Katz said. “I’d bet that is the case in most neighborhoods. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to bring back to my neighbors, though. They didn’t say anything that I haven’t told them. It’s a shame. These are professional men sitting up there — and they’re neglecting their duties. Seeing all this in person was really astonishing. It made me scratch my head more than once, I can tell you that much.

“And why is there no diversity on that board? All I see is white-male faces up there. They don’t represent the true makeup of Jersey.”

The meeting also saw former Lyndhurst Commissioner and Mayor Louis J. Stellato — the former chairman of the Bergen County Democrats — attend his first NJSEA meeting as a commissioner on the authority.

Stellato served as a Lyndhurst commissioner from 1982 to 1997 and was mayor from 1989 to 1997.

Learn more about the writer ...

Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.