Rare plant may trump solar field
By MEG HUELSMAN Courier-Post Staff June 1, 2008

GLOUCESTER TWP. The potentially hazardous effects of piercing the cap atop GEMS Landfill and the presence of a rare wildflower have pushed township officials to explore a second landfill off Somerdale Road as a potential site for a proposed solar field.

Initial proposals from interested renewable energy companies outline a plan to install long racks of solar panels atop GEMS Landfill to convert the sun's rays into electricity, ultimately reducing the township's rising utility costs and creating an additional revenue source.

But the presence of a rare wildflower, called Helonias bullata, or swamp pink, might change those plans, said attorney Dennis Riley, a trustee in charge of overseeing the maintenance of the former Superfund site.

Swamp pink, an endangered species related to the lily family, once grew in abundance in the swampy lands between New York state and Georgia. But because of a drastic reduction in habitat and a change in the climate, about 70 percent of the species is now found exclusively in South Jersey.

A small cluster of the elegant flowers grow near the landfill, and several times a year, officials must ensure the plants thrive.

Local photographer and environmental activist Michael Hogan is a swamp pink monitor in Atlantic County for the local branch of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

"Most of what is left in the world is right here in South Jersey," said Hogan, who once served on the Camden County Environmental Commission. "I think if people could see how beautiful it is, they would do more to try to save it."

It is a federal crime to harm, remove or damage the plant.

So instead of potentially harming the flower's habitat or tampering with the cap atop the landfill, Council President Glenn Bianchini said the subcommittee dedicated to studying all aspects of the solar proposals is exploring a Somerdale Road landfill.

The 50-acre property, filled with industrial waste from Owen's Corning, a former manufacturer of Fiberglass insulation that operated in Barrington.

About 30 inches of soil dumped atop the Owen's Corning landfill in 2003 acts as a cap, and environmental experts say there are no contaminants in the waste.

The site does not have the same restrictions as GEMS Landfill, which was designated a Superfund site in 1983. The designation means it must adhere to strict federal and state oversight regulations.

In addition, before the township or a private entity could build atop GEMS, the trustees in charge of overseeing the landfill must approve the plan.

"If anybody were to pierce that cap (at GEMS), it would be a real problem," Riley said.

More than 200 different public and private entities are known to have dumped innumerable toxins in the GEMS Landfill before it was closed in the early 1980s.

A $32 million settlement in 1989 and a $30 million settlement in 1997, resulted in a court-ordered fund dedicated to the maintenance and protection of the cap to be overseen by four trustees.

Riley, a trustee, represents the township. A second trustee represents the former owner, who has since died, and two others represent the interests of the major settling parties.

The idea to install a solar array atop the landfill, Riley said, is not a new one.

"I took the lead in this two years ago, whereby the trustees studied the project," Riley said, saying he sat down with representatives of Ray Angelini Inc., one of the companies that recently presented a plan to install a $16 million array at the site. "Costs and the problem with the cap left us in a position where we really could not move forward."

The township is now drafting a request for proposals and plans to present the project to the full council sometime this summer.

Reach Meg Huelsman at (856) 251-3345 or mhuelsman@courierpostonline.com