Cleaning up the two-story high pile of illegally dumped waste at 7th and Chestnut streets in Camden is only the first step to righting a wrong that has plagued the neighborhood for two decades, according to Roy Jones.
“That is just one aspect of what has to happen,” he said.
Now, the environmental justice advocate and executive director of the National Institute of Healthy Human Spaces wants testing of the air and groundwater quality done immediately in the vicinity of the site. He also wants health screenings for residents who live within five blocks.
“They have been breathing in this toxic dust for several years now,” he said. “They need to be tested, and children need to be tested, for lead and mercury and other chemicals.”
Jones’ call comes as New Jersey’s Acting Attorney General Andrew Bruck and the state Department of Environmental Protection has asked a judge to force the current owners of the property to clean up the solid waste, dust, and debris that has migrated from the site to a neighboring residential property, as well as fix and restore the fence between the site and the property.
The state also wants Weyhill Realty Holdings, which bought the property in 2019, to clean the dust, debris, sediment, and solid waste that has accumulated on the sidewalks, roads, and other public rights of way. It also wants Weyhill to stabilize the growing pile of waste.
New Jersey on Monday amended its lawsuit filed in May against S. Yaffa and Sons, Inc. and the company’s owner William Yocco, which sold the property to Weyhill two years ago.
The state could not say how soon a judge would move on the suit because it is still in the early stages.
State scrutiny of the site dates back to 2002. DEP inspectors also determined that there is a 500-gallon gasoline underground storage tank on the property that was not properly closed off. That poses the risk of the tank’s contents being leaked into the soil and groundwater.
Jones is concerned that the waste from the pile could wind up in somebody’s yard, especially if a nor’easter hits Camden hard.
“It might get to the point that it will be extreme flooding with toxic chemicals in it or flood so much that people couldn’t even get out of their homes,” he said. “Or in the case of the property where the owner lives right next to the site, the house could be completely consumed by a landslide of toxic dirt.”
In addition to the safety hazards, there are health concerns, especially for children. Jones said the property in the Bergen Square neighborhood is a block away from a charter school.
“Children on the way to school walk past this pile of dirt, breathing in this pile of toxic materials,” he said. “Children cannot fight off toxins the way adults can.”
Residents and officials, including Camden Mayor Vic Carstarphen, have called the property an example of environmental racism. The state’s lawsuit was one of seven announced in May that deals with environmental justice under then-Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. The attorney general’s office said the suits collectively involve a broad range of alleged environmental abuses by property owners including illegal dumping and the release of gasoline and other toxins from underground storage tanks.
The amended complaint is one of the first actions by Bruck, who took over the Attorney General’s Office in an acting capacity upon the departure of Grewal for the Securities and Exchange Commission. In a news release, Bruck said racial justice cannot be achieved without environmental justice.
“No community in New Jersey should be used as an illegal dumping ground, and no resident of this state should have their health and safety put at risk by illegal dumping near their home,” Bruck said.
Shawn LaTourette, DEP commissioner, called the “ever-growing” dirt pile “intolerable.”
A ‘cease operations’ order for the site was issued by the city of Camden in April, according to the Attorney General’s Office. Though Weyhill ceased operations, the pile remains.
In addition to calling for the testing of the air and soil and health screenings for residents, Jones will be convening a town hall meeting near the dump site to discuss a class action lawsuit on behalf of residents.
“People have been harmed,” he said. “Just removing the contaminated dirt is just a step. If people have been harmed, then they need to be compensated, and that neighborhood needs to be rebuilt based upon the harm that’s been inflicted on them and what they had to endure all these years.”
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