By Matthew Sockol
MILLSTONE – A property owner in Millstone Township is seeking to replace a vacant gas station with a retail building amid environmental issues facing the property.
Avinash Vashisht, who owns a 2.2-acre property at the corner of Route 537 (Monmouth Road) and Route 526, is seeking approval from the Planning Board to remove the vacant gas station and construct a 14,443-square-foot mixed use retail building in its place.
A septic system is proposed for the redeveloped property, according to engineer John Ploskonka, who represents Vashisht.
Representatives of Vashisht appeared before the board on Aug. 10. Attorney Stuart Lieberman presented the application. No decision on Vashisht’s request was made that evening and the hearing is expected to continue on Sept. 14.
According to Ploskonka, the board approved the construction of a diner on the property in 2005, but the diner was not built due to a downturn in the economy and changes in regulatory requirements that prohibited restaurants from being built in septic areas without going through a costly process.
The property was formerly owned by Exxon and is a source of environmental concern. In 1988, while the tract was an Exxon station, an underground storage tank burst open and flooded the soil and ground water.
William O’Brien, a licensed site remediation professional, spoke about the current environmental conditions of the property. According to O’Brien, there are three active areas of concern at the site, two of which he oversees on behalf of Vashisht.
The area that is not overseen by O’Brien is the site of the 1988 leak, which he said is overseen by an engineering company on behalf of Exxon. Because O’Brien does not oversee the site, he could not speak for the engineering company’s remediation work and could only summarize the firm’s report.
O’Brien said Exxon has performed active remediation on the site since 1988 with a pump-and-treat system, where ground water is pumped to the surface and removed of contaminants. In July 2015, Exxon put a classified exception area/well restriction area in place at the site.
According to O’Brien, Exxon is applying for a remedial action permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to demonstrate that the level of contamination at the site is decreasing.
“(Exxon) brought (the contamination) down low enough so they can make a model where they show that in ‘X’ amount of years, (the contamination) will deteriorate,” O’Brien said. “But they have to show it is decreasing for two years straight.”
The level of contaminants in the ground water are predicted to be gone by Dec. 31, 2025, according to O’Brien.
Board Vice Chairman Chris Pepe sought to determine if the board would continue to know about the environmental status of the site and if contaminants would continue to be removed from the property.
“What would happen if this (application) did get approved and everything looks like it is cleaning up fine, and then it stops and the water doesn’t get clean?” Pepe asked. “(What if) it doesn’t continue to decrease its level of contaminants … What would happen to the structure that has been built here and the tenants that exist in it?”
Board Chairman Mitchell Newman suggested creating a control condition if the application was approved that would require Vashisht to report back to the Planning Board on an annual basis.
“If (the board) is getting that annual information, that gives us a chance to not only talk to the applicant, but maybe have (Township Engineer) Matt Shafai talk to the DEP,” Newman said.
In response to Pepe’s concerns about the contamination levels, Lieberman said the issuance of the remedial action permit would be evidence of the contamination decreasing for the past two years and the DEP being confident those levels would continue to decrease.
Lieberman acknowledged there were no guarantees the contamination would continue to decrease, but he said that in case of an increase, remediation could continue on the site through the injection of chemical agents to combat the contaminants.
“You don’t need an empty site in order to address ground water,” Lieberman said. “You just need locations throughout the site if you need to do discreet injections.”
Mayor Bob Kinsey, who sits on the board, said a representative of the engineering company that represents Exxon should be called before the board to speak about the ongoing cleanup at the site.
“At some level, you are going to have to give this board comfort,” Kinsey said. “And the only way you are going to get that comfort is to have someone who could speak to the issue (that the engineering company) is currently working on. It is honorable that (O’Brien) will try to get the board information, but he can’t answer specific questions because he didn’t do the work and he is not responsible for that work.”
Lieberman said he would reach out to representatives of Exxon and the engineering company in a bid to secure their appearance before the board.
The two active areas of concern overseen by O’Brien have reportedly been cleared of contamination. The first area is the site of a surface diesel spill that occurred in 1998.
According to O’Brien, a subcontractor spilled 15 gallons of diesel fuel on the property while filling trucks. The site was cleaned within 24 hours and post-excavation soil samples were submitted to the DEP, but after the subcontractor submitted a final report with clean samples in 2000, the area was never closed.
“(The subcontractor) requested closure, they had three rounds of clean sampling, and it just sat,” O’Brien said. “There was so much going on at the site, it got lost. I am in the process of completing a response action outcome to close (the area).”
The area is currently being closed, which O’Brien estimated could take a little more than a month.
The second area overseen by O’Brien is the location where three underground storage tanks were removed in 2005 and two post-excavation soil samples exceeded the environmental standards at the time.
One sample was underneath an underground storage tank and had 1,000 parts per billion of volatile organic tentatively identified compounds, the standard of which is 500 parts per billion. However, a split sample taken from the same soil did not exceed the standard, according to O’Brien.
The other sample was beneath a pipe and had 3.8 parts per million of methyl tert-butyl ether, the standard of which is 3.1 parts per million. According to O’Brien, Exxon recently sampled the area and did not find the chemical at the site.
O’Brien said he is scheduling confirmatory sampling at the active area to see if the samples still exceed the standards. He estimated that the confirmatory sampling could take one to two months.