Citizens say Burton's Island clean-up plan inadequate

At a May 29 hearing, the public had a chance to hear about the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s (DNREC’s) proposed plan for remedial action for the Burton’s Island Ash Landfill in Millsboro, where ash from the Indian River Power Plant was disposed for many years. The proposed plan currently pertains only to the areas designated as Operable Units 1 and 3, because of the magnitude of the total area needing to be studied. But much of the interest from hearing participants concerned OU2, the actual ash pile itself.

After DNREC obtained sediment and soil samples at the site, they were found to be contaminated with hazardous metals above acceptable risk standards. DNREC notified the current owner, Indian River Power LLC, an affiliate of NRG Energy, of those test results, and they entered into a voluntary cleanup agreement with DNREC’s Division of Air & Waste Management, Site Investigation and Restoration Branch (SIRB) to address the contamination. That agreement led to the drafting of the proposed plan, which requires state approval after the recent public hearings.

The Burton’s Island Ash Landfill is a 144-acre-site on the premises of the Indian River Generating Station (IRGS) and consists of three areas DNREC calls Operable Units (OUs). OU1 is the shoreline; OU2 is the landfill/disposal area itself, and OU3 is offshore, the sub-tidal sediments and the waters outside of the footprint of the erosion control project.

At last Thursday’s hearing, John Austin of Rehoboth Beach said that he was concerned in reading the report on the soil and sediment samples that it was stated therein that cancer risks were minimal, while DNREC stated there were no risks. He also expressed concern that the proposed plan did not address sediments going into the nearby creek.

“In order to be protective of human health and the environment, the plan needs to include construction of a barrier to prevent further release of contaminated groundwater from the site,” he said. “What’s to prevent that groundwater from crossing into OU1? There is no barrier mentioned. And there is a high level of arsenic — not insignificant arsenic. No one is living there or drinking the water, but it is seeping into the fish and people are eating the fish. At what point do you prohibit people from taking fish?”

DNREC representatives said that groundwater is a subject matter for their OU2 investigation, which has not yet started.

“We don’t know, but can assume,” stated project manager and environmental scientist Gregory DeCowsky. “Much more data is needed. It’s 144 acres total, so there’s quite a bit more work for OU2. This is not where it stops — this is the first step.” He noted that DNREC is made up of five divisions, including the Division of Fish and Wildlife, and said he would make sure that that division got his comments.

Marie DeLoca asked what the impact of the site would be on the area’s water sources and whether leeching of the hazardous materials into them could occur. She also asked if there was a plan to deal with a possible storm surge in the event of a hurricane.

DNREC officials reiterated their stance that they are “not in a position to address ground water at this time.” They stated that they are working with the Town of Millsboro on their town wells, calling it a completely separate issue. They further noted that wells are routinely tested by the state’s Department of Public Health.

The DNREC representatives also stated that, because of the site’s location at 15 to 20 feet above sea level, they have to move forward on their erosion control program before other questions can be addressed. They noted that the full copy of the engineering design from the project permit is available on their Web site.

“We have a wetlands branch in Delaware, and it’s very important. We are trying to get this in place so we don’t have a catastrophe in the event of a storm,” added DeCowsky.

Removal of ash pile supported

Richard Schneider of Citizens for a Clean Environment thanked DNREC officials for their attention to the problem, but he reiterated the common sentiment from the public hearings that removing the ash pile itself was necessary and that simply controlling erosion with barriers was a “Band-Aid” fix.

“The mesh doesn’t solve the problem,” he said. “Use the money to remove it. [If I had something that would cause] a slightly higher cancer risk, I would be required as a citizen to dispose of properly, as should NRG. Removal is the only solution. The groundwater is a concern. There is no barrier underneath. If we had a big storm, it would wash right into the Rehoboth Bay.”

Schneider also mentioned risk analyses for arsenic in fish. He said the toxins have a cumulative effect on the human body and noted the metals found in DNRECs study: arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, selenium, vanadium and zinc.

“If you eat the fish,” he said, “it might put you over the limit. Or if you swim in the Rehoboth Bay, you could be affected by skin absorption.”

“Leaving it doesn’t deal with the problem,” said Schnieder. He asked if removal of the ash pile had been considered by DNREC.

“Groundwater and the body of ash is still subject to investigation,” said DeCowsky. “Certainly, full removal will be considered. But it is a large area — it has to go somewhere. Stabilizing the banks — that’s the first step.”

Schneider emphasized that he strongly suggested full removal, to which DeCowsky replied they will have a better idea about the possibility once their investigations are complete. Schneider concluded, “The industry has a habit of saying, ‘It’s so big. It costs too much.’ But this is not to be ignored. It costs a little money to do the right thing.”

Joan Deaver, president of Citizens for Better Sussex, stated called the power plant “a liability” and a “real big issue.”

“Our county depends on real estate transfer tax,” she noted. “If I were in real estate, I wouldn’t want to sell anything or invite my friends to live here. I’m not a scientist — I’m a housewife. But as a housewife, I know you clean it up, you don’t sweep it under the rug. You get rid of it.

“I don’t like it,” she added of the proposed plan. “I think it is very dangerous. I’m at a loss, hearing all of this tonight. I have a burden now. What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to tell people?

“I’m with you,” she said to Schnieder. “Go for it. Clean it up — get rid of it.”

Nancy Feichtl of Millsboro tried to keep her emotions in check as she spoke of the history of the area. She said her father was one of the first executives at the Indian River Power Plant and that she had lived here all her life.

“I won’t go into all my health problems,” she said. “I was there when the studying of the sluice was done secretly in the ’70s. My father oversaw the study, and my ex-husband participated in the studies. They found all kinds of metals, nitrates, etc. I was there when they planned the whisper cover-up to blame it on the farmers, but that’s another story…”

“This has gone on and on, and it is a huge problem,” Feichtl continued. “Those people in the know don’t ever fish or crab near Burton’s Island. They knew the groundwater near Piney Neck was contaminated and knew it in the mid-’70’s. They knew it was the ash pile, and it is getting worse.

“I applaud DNREC for starting,” she said, “but you don’t do a little piece and have a hearing on that piece. You start the plan and take on the issue in total. You develop goals to arrive at, and you start tackling them — big time.”

Staged plan, consultants leave public concerned

Feichtl added that the step-by-step procedure does very little to clean up the site. She expressed concern with DNREC’s objectivity and with NRG’s position — as both the source of the contamination and the major source of funding for the clean-up process.

“As the regulatory agency to oversee the clean up, you don’t use statistics provided by a hired consultant of the person you are regulating. You use someone entirely independent… I don’t think I’ll live long enough to see the plant cleaned up.”

“No one moving here knows how bad it is,” she concluded.

DNREC officials replied that, for the hearing process, they are following state laws.

Steve Callahan of Ocean View, a representative of the Sierra Club, supported concerns about the mesh not providing protection. He also asked what the costs were to DNREC and to NRG.

“DNREC’s costs have been zero,” said DeCowsky. “We’ve entered into a voluntary cleanup agreement, and all of DNREC’s costs are reimbursed by NRG.”

Callahan also asked specifically about the site’s impact on clams, crabs and other shellfish, and requested the complete Shaw Technical Report, which DNREC officials said was available online but offered to provide him with a paper copy.

Callahan stated that, at an absolute minimum, there should be a public health notice regarding the fish, clams and crabs in the area, saying that the reason should be made public. He also encouraged the removal of the ash pile, noting the recent offshore dredging for beach reconstruction in Bethany and South Bethany. He said he has faith it can be done.

“We see those big dredges out there moving sand,” he said. “We know the technology exists. I’d like to request you get cost estimates on removing the entire pile.”

“Is there a way to back-charge Delmarva Power for a problem they caused?” he asked.

DeCowsky said that he was under the impression that, as a condition of NRG’s purchase of the power plant, that they took legal responsibility for any environmental issues.

“Does that absolve Delmarva Power of responsibility? No. But NRG stepped up to the plate,” he said.

Callahan concluded by saying that he feels the ash pile is not going away and continues to be an environmental and public health threat. He also stressed that, in a separate case, a company in Pennsylvania had been ordered to remove dumped ash from the Delaware River.

“Delaware should be as concerned as Pennsylvania,” Callahan said. “After 29 years, you are still measuring the contaminants. It shows it’s not going to clean itself up. It has to be addressed. [This is not to mention] the existing ash disposal site that we are not here to talk about tonight. The Sierra Club urges DNREC to exercise its full legal authority.”

Kit Zak of Lewes asked, “To what extent does DNREC make decisions independent of NRG?” noting again that the agency is using NRG’s consultants.

DeCowsky replied that they are fully independent and only bound by statutes enacted by the Delaware General Assembly.

“Even if, personally, I’d have a different solution, we are bound by those laws and protective of human health and the environment to the extent those laws permit,” he said. He also noted that, under the Hazardous Substance Act, DNREC reviewed the data from Shaw Environmental as it came in.

Pat Elwell of Dagsboro, who can physically see the ash pile from his house on Piney Neck Road, asked about possible contamination of wells from the site.

“Is anything in the works for water for people in that area?” he asked. “Any kind of testing system for private wells?”

DNREC officials said, “Not at his time,” adding that they would take it into consideration if it appears a reasonable area of study.

Health concerns abound for area residents

Elwell also asked if heavy metals were routinely tested for by the Department of Public Health. They are not. He said that someone should check private wells.

Naturopath Kim Furtado wrapped up public comments by agreeing with Austin’s opening statements about public health concerns. She stressed the public health repercussions of the old ash landfill site.

“While you claim to not have found heavy metals in soil tests, this is not adequate to prove there is no harm or risk to our community posed by Burton’s Island’s landfill,” she said. “The public health department has been informed that, in my clinical practice, I have been testing for heavy metals and finding what I suspect are significant elevations in local patients who have lived in this community for about eight years or more.

“Instead of requiring us to prove that the heavy metals are harming us,” she said, “make NRG prove they are not. Ethically, you would be forced to acknowledge that preliminary, clinical data shows significant elevation over normal ranges, and, upon analysis, shows a relationship to proximity to the IRPP.

“Epidemiological data (although limited) has established a cancer cluster in the vicinity surrounding this pollution source,” she noted. “An environmental link has not been established officially due to poor design of data collection and refusal from the Department of Public Health to investigate any environmental hypotheses. Yet, there are significant risks to unlined fly-ash pits, and you have evidence of this one being compromised.

“Harm to the local population has not been outright proven to be connected to fly-ash contamination nor the significant air pollution,” she acknowledged. “However, significant data exist which indicate that a harm within the community is happening. Disease patterns indicate there is no plausible way that ‘proof of no harm’ has been achieved,” she said, referencing patterns of infant deaths, cancer, heart disease and autism.

“Do not fail to protect this community,” she urged DNREC officials. “Your role is not to save NRG money, as they try to operate this plant with as few expenditures as possible, at our expense. Burton’s Island’s remedial actions, as planned, are horribly inadequate, and it is a deep failure regarding your public health protection responsibilities.”

Austin added, “It is up to DNREC to require actions to abate the unacceptable risks presented by the Burton’s Island site, and this plan fails to do so.”

The proposed plan, which can be found it is entirety online at, which includes a map and images, offers detailed information designed to be relayed in a way the general public can comprehend better than the full set of related documents.

For more comprehensive reports or any of the documents created during the course of the investigation, visit online, where DNREC SIRB has scanned more than 1 million pages of files regarding the contaminated site.

For more information on the voluntary clean-up agreement, visit online.

Hearing set on new landfill site

Additionally, according to DNREC’s Solid and Hazardous Waste Management Branch, in 2007, 139,372 tons of coal ash from the Indian River Power Plant was disposed of in the separate Phase I landfill, which will reach its design capacity in about one year.

NRG Indian River operations (NRG) has applied for a permit to construct and operate a Phase II landfill. The application can be found online at

A public hearing on the application will be held at 6 p.m. on June 26, at the Millsboro Civic Center, 322 Wilson Highway, Millsboro.