A pile of toxic debris grows in Camden. Residents, lawmakers say it’s environmental racism

Shelia Roberts speaks from a podium in Camden

Camden resident Shelia Roberts talks about the mound of dirt and construction debris that looms over the intersection on 7th and Chestnut streets. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Lead and mercury are just some of the toxins found in a mound of debris that’s been growing in Camden’s Bergen Square neighborhood for the past three years, according to a county health official.

The pile, which stands at least two stories high, is blocked off by corrugated metal fencing. However, residents say the fencing does little to keep the contaminated dirt from blowing into the neighborhood on dry days like Thursday. Once rain falls, the dirt turns into a mud that seeps into the neighborhood’s storm drains.

Also on site is a 500-gallon underground storage tank for fuel, which property owners have failed to properly close for two decades. If not closed in the right way, these tanks could leak gasoline into the surrounding soil and groundwater, according to the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office.

“This would not happen in no other communities — Cherry Hill, Moorestown, Haddonfield,” said Camden Mayor Victor Carstarphen, who added that the neglect of the property is an example of environmental racism.

Camden Mayor Victor Carstarphen speaks from a podium in Camden
Camden Mayor Victor Carstarphen speaks in front of the mound of dirt and construction debris that looms over the intersection on 7th and Chestnut streets. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

City leaders argue Camden has served as a location to place undesirable projects that would be strongly opposed elsewhere. Illegal dumping is also a major problem in the city, which spends about $4 million each year cleaning it up.

Residents and lawmakers argue the Bergen Square property would have been cleaned up years ago if it were in a more affluent or whiter community.

According to a complaint filed by the Office of New Jersey Attorney General in May, the owners of the property have “unlawfully imported and stockpiled solid waste on their Camden property, including contaminated fill material, construction, and demolition debris, and waste tires.”

A huge mound of dirt and construction debris looms over the intersection on 7th and Chestnut streets
A huge mound of dirt and construction debris looms over the intersection on 7th and Chestnut streets. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Included in the complaint are Yaffa & Sons, Inc., owned by William Yocco, and Weyhill Realty Holdings, LLC. Yocco sold the property to Weyhill two years ago.

City officials say the property owners did little, if anything, to stop illegal dumping in the space in the 2000s. Residents say the owners started to stack the mound of debris about three years ago.

Now the city, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and the state Attorney General’s Office are working to permanently remove the pile of debris and remediate the property.

Residents like Sheila Roberts, who lives a few blocks away, hope to get more information on how the property will be cleaned up before fall.

“Someone needs to tell the community what the safety plan is and hopefully it will be removed before September because our kids go back to school in September. They have to walk past this,” she said.

A huge mound of dirt and construction debris looms over the intersection on 7th and Chestnut streets.
A huge mound of dirt and construction debris looms over the intersection on 7th and Chestnut streets. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Until that safety plan comes out, Carstephen said the city issued a cease-and-desist order on the property several weeks ago and is looking to enforce license violations in municipal court next week.

For now, no new debris, which officials say is being imported into Bergen Square from the suburbs, has been added to the mound. Officials say they’re working with the DEP to install cameras around the rest of the property to make sure no third parties are illegally dumping on the site.

Nearby residents say remediation can’t come soon enough; some worry about the long term health effects living by the mound will have on members of their community.

Shelia Roberts speaks from a podium in Camden
Camden resident Shelia Roberts talks about the mound of dirt and construction debris that looms over the intersection on 7th and Chestnut streets. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“We have buried a lot of people in this community for various types of cancer,” said Roberts. “Where did it come from? … If you think about it, we don’t know how many people we’ve already buried because of this.”

Democratic Assemblyman Bill Moen has introduced legislation that would double the penalties illegal dumpers face.

“It should not be the responsibility of the city or the victim to clean this up,” said Moen. “What we see behind us, again, is symbolic of the work we are doing to ensure that places like this do not grow anywhere else and do not continue to exist in the city of Camden.”

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