A whitetail deer passes by a pond about 300 meters downstream of the Fenimore Landfill in New Jersey. (Photo by Karl Schneider/News21)

ROXBURY TOWNSHIP, N.J. – At first glance, Ledgewood Park in Roxbury Township, New Jersey, is the epitome of a small-town park. The fishing pond is stocked with bluegill and largemouth bass, a basketball court stretches along the gravel parking lot and a pristine-looking stream runs along hiking trails in the woods surrounding the park.

The stream, Ledgewood brook, eventually flows into the Raritan River. Environmental scientists have deemed it “impaired,” which means they found fewer insects in the stream – an indication something is wrong with the water. They’re concerned about the drinking water of 1.5 million New Jerseyans downstream.

“If I didn’t know there was a dump about 200 meters upstream, I would think this should get a perfect score,” said Bill Kibler, director of policy at the Raritan Headwaters Association, a nonprofit conservation group. “‘Impaired’ sounds pretty innocuous. It doesn’t sound all that bad, but in a headwater stream, frankly, that’s shocking.”

Water flows under the Fenimore Landfill before reaching the surface to form the brook near the park. The landfill made national news in 2013 when toxic gas leaked from the site, posing a health risk to the residents. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection decided to place an impermeable cap on the landfill.

“If you see the cap, it’s very attractive. It’s landscaped, you know, so it’s out of sight out of mind,” Kibler said. “It doesn’t address the issue of groundwater, which is something the Department of Environmental Protection has to address on this site.”

Elliott Ruga (left) and Bill Kibler check out the area surrounding the Fenimore Landfill in Roxybury Township, New Jersey. The landfill is capped, but these two environmental workers believe it wasn’t done correctly and is contaminating the waters surrounding the site. (Photo by Karl Schneider/News21)

Kibler is part of the Raritan Headwaters Association team that tests the health of the streams in the area. He has been monitoring the Ledgewood and Bound brooks in Roxbury Township that run down from the landfill.

More intensive testing takes place at groundwater monitoring wells closer to the dump. A 2015 groundwater report  shows the carcinogenic chemical benzene is contaminating the groundwater near the landfill. Levels of benzene above New Jersey’s groundwater quality standards have been found since 2011. Both have proven adverse effects on human health, including increased risk of cancer.

“The folks that live here in Roxbury, in particular the folks that live around the dump, have wells – private wells,” Kibler said. “Well, they’re relying on groundwater for their drinking water. That creates a real problem for the local folks.”

The state environmental department found conflicting results at sites near the landfill.

Kibler said he needs to know more about what’s in the landfill, which means the environmental protection department would have to reopen parts of the cap.

“Until we know what’s in the landfill, we don’t know what to test for,” Kibler said.

Bill Kibler explains the water systems underlying the Raritan Headwaters in New Jersey. Kibler and the Raritan Headwaters Association test waters for contaminants in the area. (Photo by Karl Schneider/News21)

The landfill opened in the 1950s and was temporarily shut down in 1979. The area sat deserted until 2001. It was sold to Strategic Environmental Partners, owned by Richard Bernardi, who reopened the landfill. A grand jury had convicted Bernardi for conspiring to bribe a city official seven years earlier.

New Jersey state law prohibits convicted felons from “holding even a ‘beneficial interest’ in licensed solid waste businesses,” according to an investigative report commissioned by the state. But, according to the report, the ban is ambiguous and can be “easily defeated by enterprising operators.”

In 2016, a state grand jury indicted Bernardi on charges related to his operations at the Fenimore Landfill. Environmental groups claim that Bernardi’s former landfill is leaking toxins that could reach the drinking water of millions of people.

The landfill has been a contentious topic for residents and local and state governments. Groups have urged the complete removal of the waste within the dump while officials argue that the current cap is sufficient. The landfill is currently under the jurisdiction of the Department of Environmental Protection, essentially leaving the township’s hands tied.

“They (DEP) just showed up one day with state troopers and seized the property,” said Dan Kline, a councilman in Roxbury.

Kline proposed community well testing to the council, but he said they did not spend money on it last year.

Environmental groups such as the Raritan Headwaters Association monitor water in the area near the Fenimore Landfill in New Jersey. They are concerned about contaminants polluting the brook. (Photo by Karl Schneider/News21)

“Given the limited amount of things in the township’s control with this issue, why aren’t we doing more?” Kline said. “Giving money for well testing is a start, or giving money to the environmental committee is a good start, but it seems like there’s been a lot that we could do to alleviate people’s concerns.”

Community activists confronted Gov. Chris Christie about the landfill at two town hall meetings in 2014.

“I understand there is a group of people in Roxbury who want this stuff trucked out,” Christie said during one town hall. “Digging out that landfill and trucking it out will take years, and the disturbance of those materials will create more smell and a bigger problem.”

Even though the governor made his stance clear, Kibler said the landfill still poses a real threat to millions of people.

“Frankly, there are 1.5 million people downstream in New Jersey that don’t know this is their problem,” he said. “People in Roxbury know this is their problem. Folks downstream don’t realize that. That’s a bigger crime to me.”

To see the full News21 report on “Troubled Water,” go troubledwater.news21.com on Aug. 14.