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Mark Freed Quoted in Bucks County Courier Times

October 10, 2010

Business, DEP fight over water pollution

The Intelligencer

Owners of an industrial business destroyed by fire three months ago are challenging the state over who is responsible for water contamination linked to fighting the four-alarm blaze.

In a dispute with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the owners of a Plumstead business destroyed by fire this summer say they are not responsible for the neighborhood water contamination that followed the devastating blaze.

Still, DEP has ruled that chemicals stored in the business mixed with the water used in fighting the fire is what has caused local well contamination and therefore the business owners are responsible to pay for clean water for the affected families.

Eleven township homeowners whose wells were tainted with chemicals associated with battling the fire are receiving water from a tanker truck, provided by the DEP, said Deborah Fries, an agency spokeswoman. Five others are receiving bottled water. The water isn't rationed, but it can't be used for washing cars or watering grass or gardens.

In August, the DEP ordered Dennis Rice, Dale Cotton, Douglas Partridge and Custom Particle Reduction, Inc., the Stump Road industrial firm which the three men own, to continue providing bottled water to five families who have received water since the pollution was discovered.

It also ordered them to provide bottled water to any additional properties that showed contamination attributable to runoff from the fire.

Within 20 days of the Aug. 5 order, the business owners were to give potable "whole house" water to the five properties and to other homes if DEP found they were polluted from the fire's runoff.

Custom Particle Reduction, Rice, Cotton and Partridge were also told to hire a professional geologist within 15 days of the order to determine the extent of groundwater contamination associated with runoff from the firefighting.

Citing the Clean Streams Act, DEP said it was Custom Particle Reduction and its owners' responsibility to remediate two detention ponds on the site that were used to fight the fire and to restore safe drinking water to affected homeowners.

DEP contends chemicals stored at the business mixed with water used to fight the fire and caused the well contamination.

However, Rice, Cotton and Partridge are appealing the order to Pennsylvania's Environmental Hearing Board, saying DEP "erroneously concluded" that one or more chemicals allegedly stored at the business were released.

In its appeal, the men's Philadelphia attorney, Mark Freed, disputes DEP's claim.

"The alleged discharge of contaminants, if any, was the unavoidable result of the firefighter's activities in fighting the fire," states the appeal.

Fries said DEP cannot comment on the litigation.

However, she did say, "DEP definitely will seek recovery from them. They are the responsible party."

In the absence of Custom Particle complying with the order, DEP is using funding from the state's Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act to provide water to residents.

DEP has also pumped out the ponds and intends to provide new, deeper wells to between five and eight residences before the winter. Which homes will get new wells has not been determined.

Fries said the agency is monitoring the groundwater and sampling soil. It plans to excavate the ponds, which she referred to as "a continuing concern," and re-line them. Until then, the ponds will be emptied as needed, to avoid water escaping from them. Following last weekend's heavy rains, DEP's contractor pumped out approximately 55,200 gallons from the ponds, said Fries.

For Rob Bradley, whose young family now gets its water from a shiny steel tanker truck parked in front of his house, a new well would be good but he'd rather have public water to his Ann Drive home.

"I like well water, but who is going to buy a home with this problem. Our homes are worth nothing right now."

There is no public water in the area and there are no plans to install it.

Bradley, like other residents in the area, said he is "getting by" but wonders if he'll ever recover all he's lost following the water contamination.

He had just installed new well equipment and a water softener when his water was declared unsafe to use. He also lost two gardens that he could not water over the long, hot summer.

When he asks if he'll be reimbursed, "all you get are government answers."

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