Camden officials take over illegal dumpsite to begin cleanup

Long a nuisance in Camden’s Bergen Square neighborhood, officials cut the chain to access an illegal dumpsite that includes a 70,000-ton toxic dirt pile.

Camden Mayor Vic Carstarphen and Congressman Donald Norcross cut the chain on an illegal dumping site at 7th and Chestnut streets to begin the process of cleaning up a 40-foot-tall mound of debris that has been troubling residents for years. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Camden Mayor Vic Carstarphen and Congressman Donald Norcross cut the chain on an illegal dumping site at 7th and Chestnut streets to begin the process of cleaning up a 40-foot-tall mound of debris that has been troubling residents for years. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Camden Mayor Vic Carstarphen was holding the bolt cutters as U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross was holding the chain to the property.

“Just don’t get my finger,” Norcross told Carstarphen.

“I don’t need no trouble from D.C.,” the mayor responded.

In one snip, officials cut the chain to an illegal dump site at 7th and Chestnut streets in the city’s Bergen Square Neighborhood. It’s the beginning of a remediation project that will take several months to clean up.

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As officials walked on the property Monday, two men in black polo shirts from Montrose Environmental Group began the work of assessing the property. They will conduct dirt samples and characterize the material on site between now and November.

Cody Postlethwait (left) and Christopher Valligny of Montrose Environmental Group begin evaluating the 45-foot-tall mound of debris at dumped illegally at 7th and Chestnut streets in Camden. The group will determine the volume and composition of the mound before making recommendations about its removal. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In October, “optimistically” according to the mayor, the Camden Redevelopment Agency will award a contract to remove the dirt on city-owned parcels. Community meetings to provide updates on the remediation process and the outcome of dirt sample testing are expected to happen in December. In the first half of 2023, the dirt will be removed from parcels owned by the city. Soil from the privately-owned parcels is expected to be removed next summer.

“This will go from a negative to a positive for this community, mark my words on that,” said the mayor.

Camden Mayor Vic Carstarphen (center) walks into a private dump site at 7th and Chestnut streets after cutting the chains on the gate.. The city has reached an agreement to begin cleanup on the privately owned property. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Joining Carstarphen was Shawn LaTourette, New Jersey’s commissioner for environmental protection, as they recall the previous angles they’ve seen of the dirt pile. Of the sight, he said it was worse than he expected.

“I just see mounds and mounds of just dirt as high as you can see,” he said, adding that he felt terrible for the residents who live near the dirt pile who’ve had to live with it.

“This is…just terrible for someone to do this,” Carstarphen said. “This is terrible for someone to continue doing this and building this and then dumping and dumping…til it got to a level like this.”

Camden County and the City of Camden were able to access the property because its current owners, Weyhill Realty Holdings, were not taking any action to address the 70,000-ton nuisance.

Things started moving to begin remediating the site of toxic dirt and other icky-ness towards the end of summer, when the City of Camden, Camden County, Camden Redevelopment Agency, and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection entered into a memo of understanding that opened a path for the site to finally get cleaned up.

The memo covers several contiguous properties along two city blocks covered by the memo; between 6th and 7th streets from Mount Vernon to Sycamore streets. Lead and mercury had been found in the dirt pile, which is at least two stories high. Also on the property, a 500-gallon underground fuel storage tank that the state alleges has not been properly closed by the owners.

LaTourette said that illegal dumping is far too common in the state.

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N.J. Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette speaks at a press conference at 7th and Chestnut streets in Camden, the site of an illegal dumping ground. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“We see it in the rural communities of Sussex County, where folks think they won’t be caught and make that rural community their dumping ground, too,” he said. “Nobody deserves that.”

Funds to pay for the clean-up have been set aside; $5 million of American Rescue Plan, or ARP, money the city received. In addition, $2 million from a $200 million state aid package to the city is also being committed. Legal action against Weyhill and previous owners, S. Yaffa and Sons, Inc., and the company’s owner William Yocco, will continue despite remediation work taking place.

Camden City Councilwoman Shaneka Boucher of the 1st Ward said the real celebration will be “when the dirt starts to move.” She added that anyone who wants to illegally dump in the city is on notice.

“We will not tolerate it,” she declared. “As it was already stated by our mayor, enough is enough and we won’t take it anymore.”

Catching illegal dumpers is a top priority for Carstarphen and Camden officials. Norcross secured $500,000 in federal money to help fund hidden cameras to catch illegal dumpers in the act.

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