Concerns grow over the pollution of local lakes and streams

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The area around Brad and Christen Lafferty’s home in Gibbsboro has a questionable history. Their property surrounds several streams, fed by the nearby creeks – like Millard Creek and the tributaries of the Cooper River. The creeks flow parallel with Gibbsboro-Kirkwood Road from Bridgewood Lake off United States Avenue.

  The Lafferty’s are the parents of two children, a five-year old girl and a boy one and a half years old boy. Their seemingly healthy daughter, Erin, became sick, and was shortly after diagnosed with cancer.

  Nearby is the Paintworks, the site of a former Sherwin-Williams factory. The factory sits on Silver Lake. The facility operated from 1849 to 1976, mainly manufacturing white lead paints, varnishes, and lacquer.  The John Lucas Company owned this facility from 1849 to 1930, when Sherwin Williams took over the company. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), multiple raw materials were used at the facility, such as lead oxide, zinc oxide, lead chromate, ferrous sulfate, sulfuric acid, and linseed oil.

  The property was sold to a private developer in 1981 and while the property was in the process of reconstruction, a large amount of contamination was found within the ground. After much investigation, it was determined that the water and soil around the plant are contaminated.

  While the plant was in operation, much of the waste that was left over was dumped, deeply contaminating the area. Contaminants were dumped in the Route 561 Dump Site, the US Avenue Burn Site, and Hilliards Creek, which feeds into Kirkwood Lake. Think of the streams and the lakes like the veins and arteries of the body.

  It’s all connected.

  Only last August did Brad Lafferty realize that Erin’s case of cancer was unlike others. At a Federal EPA meeting, residents were informed of the contaminants found in the ground and surrounding areas. Mr. Lafferty and many other residents connect this to the recent rise in illnesses in the Gibbsboro area.

  Even though there has been no official assessment directly linking the rise of cancer to the facility, the EPA has listed three facilities in the complex as Superfund sites, which officially designates them contaminated and requiring cleanup.

  The knowledge of contamination within his soil is what initiated Lafferty to file a class action lawsuit against The Sherwin-Williams Company with Attorney Craig Mitnick.

  “We started our litigation against Sherwin-Williams to hold those responsible for knowingly polluting the grounds in our neighborhood,” Lafferty said.

  He still has nightmares about the amount of tomatoes his daughter ate out of their garden, only to find out that it was contaminated with chemicals dangerous to her health.

  “Our lawsuit is intended to hold those responsible for the contamination accountable and make them clean all areas affected so no more children and adults suffer any more life threatening diseases as a result of their negligence,” said Lafferty.

  In addition to the health effects of the contamination, the lifestyle in the area has been changed. Alice Johnston lives on Kirkwood Lake and is the Chair of the Kirkwood Lake Environmental Committee, a group of people including the mayor of Voorhees, engineers, former EPA officials, and Camden County elected officials working together to get Kirkwood Lake dredged. They are working through state and federal legislators, EPA officials, and Sherwin-Williams to accomplish their goal.

  Though the Paintworks site is not on Kirkwood Lake, contaminants still flow directly into the lake from surrounding waterways. Again, veins and arteries. What was once a vibrant life on the lake filled with boating and fishing has diminished due to the contamination. Alice and other residents on Kirkwood Lake are scheduled to have their properties remediated, a process where entire yards will have to be dug up and replaced.

  The cleanup process is very slow. “There’s no reason they can’t do this concurrently,” she said. “I really just wish that they’d do the right thing and get this cleaned up quickly,” she said.

  Filmmaker, Michael Knowles, a 1987 Eastern graduate, is currently filming a documentary about Paintworks. Knowles was inspired to create the documentary after noticing his friend’s Facebook post about the issue. He currently lives in Los Angeles, but has made several trips to Gibbsboro since December in order to interview residents and gather information. He said his objective in creating the film is to “let people know about the wonderful town I grew up in and to inspire people to stand up.”

  The documentary is expected to be a two to three year process of filming and should be released soon afterwards.

  According to Knowles, there are several sides to the issue. The first is the side of Sherwin-Williams; which has remained rather resistant and defensive regarding the allegations, but is complaint with orders from the government.

  From the perspective of the resident, there are some that are passionate about taking action against Sherwin-Williams and wants change to come to the area.

 Then there are some who are not as informed on the issue or are not very passionate about the issue.

 Tori Leonardis is a sophomore at Eastern. She lives in Gibbsboro, and is a five minute walk away from the Paintworks center. She said, “I️ know that the lake became contaminated with some sort of chemical. There are rumors that the company dumped chemicals in it,” she said.

  Another Gibbsboro resident is Julia Dodd. She was always told to never swim in the lakes. She became more aware of the issue when her dad’s friend tried to get him to sign a petition to get support for the lawsuit. Still, even though she is aware of the issue, she is not so aware of the specifics of it.

  This reflects a large amount of uncertainty about the situation. She said that she does not fear for her health, but rather fears for the environment. There are many signs of fear though. “My neighbor across the street had to have their backyard dug up because of contaminated soil or something,” she said.

  Despite the tough situation, residents such as Brad vow to continue the fight. They are determined to have the town they used to have. Brad is motivated by his daughter’s cancer case. “Once you see a child fight cancer, it will change your life forever.”