Let’s call it the Christmas Miracle on Bergen Avenue (with thanks to Deborah Garcia for the title.) What was a year-long battle ended with a unanimous vote that took less than a minute to tally.
The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority voted unanimously at its monthly meeting on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, to approve a resolution that will keep the Keegan Landfill closed forever — never to open again, under any circumstances.
Prior to the vote, one could tell something special might be in the works.
About 10 minutes before the official meeting was to commence, NJSEA Chairman John Ballantyne approached The Observer and town photographer Barbara B. Goldberg to inform us that the authority would be entering a closed session after the regular meeting was to begin. When the closed meeting began, those in attendance — there were about 30 in total — would have to clear the chamber and bring all electronic recording equipment out.
While the purpose of the closed session was unknown then — such meetings generally occur to discuss matters of litigation or employee-related issues — it was the first time since West Hudson residents began packing the meetings in March that an executive-session took place out of order and near the start of a meeting.
Optimism was immediately in the air.
A few minutes before the closed-session, which took about 20 minutes, ended, NJSEA Spokesman Brian Aberback handed out a copy of the resolution that called for the continued and permanent closure of the landfill. Once attendees were permitted to return to the chamber, it was clear this ordeal was coming to a close, though a lot of work still lies ahead.
As the public session returned, Kearny Mayor Alberto G. Santos, who fought relentlessly to close the landfill permanently and to ensure it gets a permanent, impermeable cap to keep the dangerous gas hydrogen sulfide from escaping, was the first to address the NJSEA to encourage the resolution’s passage.
“It’s been a very long and hard road for Kearny residents in respect to the Keegan Landfill, to have it closed and have it capped,” Santos said. “The resolution you’re proposing today does just that. So I am very pleased for my community that we reached this day. It’s a framework for a settlement. The appeals — the actions — all that could (and did) end so that we can undertake the work for proper closing and capping this landfill … and the nightmare that this has been for our community, the health impact … but our community persisted. We were finally heard.
“ … I extend my gratitude to you, the commissioners, to the director (Vincent Prieto) and your staff for helping us reach this day.”
The agreement, Santos says, came to fruition following negotiations between attorneys for the NJSEA and the Town of Kearny. They’d been working on it for a couple of weeks prior to the Thursday-morning meeting, according to NJSEA President Vincent Prieto.
“It provides the best framework we could hope for. In order to install the cap there must be additional clean fill. I will make sure the Kearny community understands that,” Santos said. “It will only be clean fill. Once we reach those slopes, the impermeable cap will be installed. This will be done in two phases — the west side of the landfill will be done first … and hopefully a year from now, we could point to a properly-closed landfill on the western side. And then the eastern side will be the following year.”
Santos says the plan calls for “an aggressive schedule” to get the landfill closed as quickly as possible — likely sometime in 2021 —and that he looks forward to working with the NJSEA to ensure it all happens according to plan.
Santos then took time to praise those who worked so hard, with him, to get to this day.
“Many of them are not here today because of the holidays,” he said. “This is a collective victory for all of us. The sports authority did the right thing — for our Town of Kearny it is absolutely the right thing. And it was residents … who spoke to their neighbors and used social media effectively” who were able to change the outcome.
Santos also noted he hopes Kearny and the NJSEA repairs its relationship.
“It may take longer than the capping, but it’s something I am going to do,” he said. “ … We want to restore that confidence and trust. And now we move forward … I will do all I can to restore that confidence and trust.”
Then, Commissioner and Essex County Sheriff Armando B. Fontoura chimed in — offering some much-needed humor that was rarely present at normally tense NJSEA meetings.
“I just want to commend and congratulate Mayor Santos, and his council, but most importantly, the residents of Kearny, for their patience, their doggedness — you guys were just relentless,” Fontoura said via a teleconference line (he wasn’t present at the meeting, but did vote in favor of the resolution remotely.)
“This was good government at work — good community at work, and I want to make sure that you understand that I look forward to working with you, Al, the council, and the rest of you citizens — and I’ll look forward to coming to join a soccer match with my family … I think I’ll be getting Christmas cards from you, Al, in particular — and I look forward to working with you guys to make sure all that you need and deserve comes to fruition.”
Afterward, two others who had a huge impact on this resolution, First Ward Councilman Albino Cardoso and Kearny Health Office Ken Pincus also addressed the NJSEA briefly. (Also in attendance at the meeting were Councilmembers Eileen Eckel and Peter Santana, as was Santos’s assistant and Recreation Chairwoman Lyla DeCastro.)
Ballantyne, meanwhile, says he hopes that with the matter resolved that the NJSEA and Kearny residents might stay in touch.
“It truly was amazing to see you come together. The stick-to-itiveness that you had — I can appreciate that,” Ballantyne said. “For our staff — we have such a dynamic staff here at the NJSEA. I hope that in the future, as we move forward, this is not the end of Kearny’s participation. We do offer a lot, a tremendous amount of resources here for the community. And I hope that in time you’ll come back to celebrate some of the programs we have — especially for the children.”
When the resolution was ultimately passed in a unanimous vote, those from West Hudson in attendance — including John Downey Jr. and Maggie Millar — roared with applause in approval. In the future, passive recreation opportunities will allow the public to access to the former landfill and to have use of the Kearny marsh.
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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.