Officials Work to Reassure Residents About Soil Contamination in Votee Park

Residents question why park must remain closed, while officials cite safety precautions

There have been no reports of illness from soil contaminants found at Teaneck’s , but most of the park will remain closed for the year, officials said at a public forum about the contamination Wednesday night.

Officials at the meeting sought to reassure concerned residents after tests showed , within reach of park visitors. Concentrations of benzo(a)pyrene, a potentially cancer-causing agent, above state standards were found within six inches of the surface, recent results showed.

Still, Linda Cullen, an environmental toxicity unit supervisor with the state Department of Environmental Protection, cautioned the soil contamination standards were conservative.

The stricter residential standard is based on a one-in-a-million chance of a person developing cancer by ingesting 200 mg of contaminated soil for 350 days per year for the first six years of their life, then 100 mg for 350 days over the following 24 years, she said.

“That 30 years is what we consider a residential scenario,” Cullen said. “These standards were specifically developed to be reasonable, but maximum exposures.”

Cullen said state standards also take into account “sensitive populations,” including senior citizens.

Township Health Officer Ken Katter explained he reviewed cancer mortality rates from 1999 to 2005, and found Teaneck’s rate was equal to or lower than nearby towns including Hackensack, Paramus and Fair Lawn. Katter said he also examined national statistics.

“There is no indication of an unusual cancer prevalence in Teaneck," Katter said. "Therefore there is no prevalence related to Votee Park.” 

Katter said there have been no reports of sick animals, which might be impacted by contaminants before humans.

“Again, I’ve been with the township’s health department for 20 years and in that time period I don’t have one report filed in my office about anybody being in Votee Park and getting sick,” he said.

Some residents, however, asked how information about illnesses would flow to town officials from doctors, and how parents would know to alert the township of any possible health issues with their children.

Teaneck Junior Football Treasurer George Jordan asked what he should tell parents of the nearly 150 children who regularly play tackle football in the park, often getting covered with soil.

Karen Schmidt, a township public health nurse, said schools nurses have not reported any health anomalies, but parents should be vigilant and alert officials to any concern.

“You could roll around in benzo(a)pyrene for 50 years and not have any health effect from it,” said Benjamin Alter, a principal with GZA GeoEnvironmental Technologies Inc., which conducted the soil tests. “The root of exposure that we’re talking is ingestion”

John Carr, with Teaneck Junior Football, questioned why the park must stay closed in light of the apparently limited health risk.

“If it’s safe, as all you guys have fed us a thousand statistics, than what is the hold up?” Carr asked the panel of officials.

Township Manager William Broughton said officials would work to reopen some areas of the park, including tennis and basketball courts, after fencing is installed, however, no timeframe was set. Additional testing was also needed on the swimming pool area.

“Our goal, in the end, is to get the park open as early as possible while we protect the public health,” Broughton said.

Teaneck was in touch with county officials to use Overpeck Park, and other spaces in town. Although some residents have questioned if the township’s other parks could also be contaminated, Parks, Playgrounds and Recreation Advisory Board member Kenneth Hoffman said Votee was a unique problem because other parks were built from natural land.

Tests in the 40-acre park turned up widespread contamination from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, known as PAHs, officials have said. Marc Hudock, GZA’s senior project manager, said one of 50 surface soil samples turned up lead above a state guideline.

Levels of mercury initially discovered in the park were not believed to have any impact on groundwater, Hudock said.

The park after officials learned levels of benzo(a)pyrene, polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, above state safety guidelines were found. 

Wednesday’s meeting, at the , was the first in a series of on the contamination. 

Diane Schwarz February 10, 2012 at 12:34 AM
From the walking path, I observed a flock of very healthy looking Canadian Geese, munching away on the grass. Have we had any diminution of them over the years?
JamesTS February 10, 2012 at 01:30 AM
The Town Health Dept Officer is saying theres no reports of animals being sick. I guess that doesnt mean they could get sick now.. I have to say I think everyone is somewhat overreacting. Health risks seem very very low and this park has been open for years with the contamination. If there was a serious health problem wouldnt be knowby now? Wouldnt there be known cancer clusters, etc?
Joe Schmoe February 11, 2012 at 03:30 AM
I'm surprised so many of you are minimizing the importance of this issue. First, the contaminant level standards are there for a reason, which is to err on the side of caution. If those levels are exceeded, then it is the town's responsibility to get on the ball and fix the problem. All I see is the usual footdragging from do-nothings who are spending more time giving us bogus reassurances than actually dealing with the issue. Second, the junior league football coach asked the right question: if the danger is infinitesimal, as the council suggests, then why not just open up the park while they concurrently do whatever is necessary to get below the threshold levels? Third, if they see fit to forbid people from entering the park, then why don't they be HONEST and give the reasons for the closure on the signs they put up? All I see is a couple of "park closed" signs, which are ignored by a great many people I see roaming around the park daily. It gives the appearance that the town of Teaneck is too embarrassed to admit there is a potential environmental hazard amidst, and thus prefer to put up some vague keep-out signs instead of being forthright about the real reasons the park is closed. There's a very fundamental dishonesty in play here, in addition to the pathetic foot dragging. Are you people tired of the town leaders dealing with potentially serious public health problems on glacial time scales? I mean, come on people. Stop being such sheep.
Darel DePompeo February 11, 2012 at 12:13 PM
Guess I'm going to go down to Votee Park and eat some soil but not 350 days in a row I need some variety. Gotta keep the EPA in business.
dsudranski February 12, 2012 at 12:26 PM
Its all abojt liability. I assume the slow cleanup is about money, namely who will pay for it. Ultimately it will be the taxpayer, the question is which ones?


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