Sorry, but that familiar summertime rally cry will not be heard in North Bergen for the next two years. Officials announced last week that the township's 34-year-old municipal swimming pool complex is being shut down because of environmental problems discovered at the site, located between 89th and 91st Streets, below Tonnelle Avenue.
Both soil and groundwater samples taken by an environmental consulting firm in December revealed that the area had higher levels of contaminants, including the cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), than accepted by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The consultant, Bell Environmental of Budd Lake, N.J., also discovered the presence of oil, potentially more than 100,000 gallons, located below the complex, also contaminated with PCBs. Bell estimates that anywhere from 75,000 to 125,000 gallons of oil could be under the site, anywhere from two feet below the surface to 11 feet.
"Although we are certain that the swimming pool itself has always been safe because it is encased in concrete, we must close the entire facility due to the condition of the ground in the rest of the complex," said North Bergen Parks and Recreation Commissioner Peter Perez last week.
The closure will force more than 1,200 families to look elsewhere for their summer recreational aquatic activities. Mayor Nicholas Sacco said that the town hopes to have a new complex operating by the summer of 2004, but the site and the cost of a new facility have yet to be determined.
It is believed that the cleanup will cost the township an estimated $2.4 million, simply with the removal of the oil and the contaminated soil.
"It's devastating," Sacco said. "It's something that couldn't have been anticipated. The pool has been down there since 1968 and our programs and projects there have been first rate for decades. We were hoping to have the situation remedied by 2003, but there is no way that we could get the site cleaned properly in that time. It's over. We just can't have it open. We have no choice involved. It's going to hurt us financially. We're going to take a heavy hit."
Prior to 1968, when the swimming pool first opened, the site was used by both the Amalgamated Oil Refinery and Vapor Phase Oil Inc., which operated there from as early as the 1920s. It is believed that both companies are the sources of the oil.
The township Law Department is investigating the current status of those companies or successor firms with the intent of recapturing clean-up costs, but those possibilities are highly unlikely.
The Law Department will also investigate coverage provided by former municipal insurance carriers. North Bergen may also turn to the state's Hazardous Discharge Site Remediation Fund to help finance clean-up costs.
Bell Environmental first documented a possible problem at the site last summer while working as a consultant to the North Bergen Board of Education, which briefly considered using the swimming pool parking lot to house temporary trailers for a pre-kindergarten program.
"If we never did that test then, we never would have known," Sacco said.
The Board of Education eventually decided to house the trailers inside Bruins Stadium in North Hudson Braddock Park.
The township retained the firm in November to fully inspect the property. North Bergen then signed a voluntary agreement with the state DEP last November, agreeing to investigate the extent of the problem.
"We have been very open from the beginning," Sacco said. "We were the ones who discovered the problem and reported the possibility of a problem to the state DEP."
According to Sacco, township officials learned of the serious nature of the contamination during a meeting with Bell in late January.
Bell is expected to present a preliminary written report to the township within the next two weeks. The firm is proceeding with its study of the property. By the end of this year, the township will submit a formal "Remedial Action Work Plan" to the NJDEP, which will detail the extent of the contamination and the clean-up plan.
Township vehicles will continue to utilize the paved parking lot in the meantime, but no further recreational activities will be allowed on the property. Warning signs and "No Trespassing" signs are being posted at the site.
About 1,200 local families paid a membership fee ranging from $85 (senior citizen rate) to $350 (seven or more family members) to use the pool last year.
Township officials believe that the pool itself was probably the safest area of the location, because it was encased in concrete, and they do not believe anyone who used the pool has had their health aversely affected by it. But just to calm concerns, they will offer anyone who used the pool free medical testing to see if they have been exposed to carcinogens like PCB or benzene, traces of which have also been discovered at the site.
Sacco said that township recreation officials have already discussed alternative plans.
"We received a call from Palisades Park Mayor Sandy Farber and he said that we could use their pool when they had free time," Sacco said. "We could use their pool for our swim team and for our residents. We're also getting responses from other local municipalities. The efforts have been greatly appreciated."
Will hurt swim team
However, it doesn't give much solace to Recreation Supervisor and Aquatic Director Lydia Coleman, who helped to form the North Bergen Gators, the town's swim team, which services nearly 100 youngsters.
"I was stunned when I learned and I was hurt," Coleman said. "I was surprised. This is going to affect a lot of people, the swim team, the members of the pool. I've been one of those since the pool opened. I grew up there as a kid and later became a lifeguard there. I made friends and contacts there. It's sad. I'm trying to look at it as positively as possible."
Coleman said that she was in contact with the New Jersey Pool Managers Association Wednesday to locate possible alternatives.
"They know our predicament and they're willing to help," Coleman said. "It would have been easier if we would have known ahead of time."
There could be a silver lining to the story. Sacco said that the town will examine the possibility of building a new indoor/outdoor swim complex. The competitive swim season takes place during the winter months, so it would make sense to have an indoor facility for the town's recreation swim program.
"We have to get a cost estimate and see how much we could secure in grants," Sacco said. "Plus, we have to see the insurance policies and see who is responsible for the oil. There are a lot of issues to be handled legally before we can officially move forward."
Sacco said that the residents who he has spoken to have been understanding.
"They seem very calm," Sacco said. "I know the pool represents their entire summer vacation in some instances, so we're willing to work with them. The pool had begun to run its course, so now we're forced to look at other possibilities. It hurts now, but it could benefit us in the long run."
That will be harder to believe when the summer temperatures hover in the 90s and North Bergen residents have little opportunity to beat the heat.