Organized crime is exploiting loopholes in the recycling business to dump contaminated fill at huge profits in environmentally sensitive areas, according to the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation.
In a hearing on an ongoing investigation into the recycling of waste material, investigators told of lax oversight and an absence of licensing requirements that are allowing “dirt brokers’’ to improperly dump construction debris and contaminated soil, some containing cancer-causing agents, statewide.
The probe, the latest by the investigative body to focus on the waste and hauling industry, recalled decade-old problems of the mob infiltrating the sector to dump illegally, which led to scores of federal Superfund toxic waste sites in New Jersey.
In response, the state passed a tough licensing law for those involved in the garbage and hazardous waste fields, a measure some thought would resolve the problem and weed out criminal elements from the business. Not so, said the SCI.
“It was easy to believe the dumping days were over,’’ Lee Seglem, acting executive director of the SCI said in opening the hearing in the State House Annex in Trenton. “But they are not — not by a long shot.’’
“It should surprise no one the architects of this toxic trafficking includes organized crime associates and criminal elements,’’ Seglem said.
In the 1980s, the state passed a tough law (dubbed “A-901”) requiring individuals in the garbage and hazardous waste industries to pass background checks and tough licensing requirements, a mostly successful effort to drum out those tied to organized crime and convicted felons.
The requirements, however, do not apply to the recycling industry, which was specifically exempted, the SCI noted. Even today, no background check or registration is required to get started in the sector, specials agents from the SCI said.
“All you need is a fax and phone line and you’re in business,’’ Carol Palmer, a special SCI agent testified.
During the hearing, witnesses told of the huge profits earned by those who pass off contaminated soil and construction debris as clean fill, often used on residential properties and other land where people and young children can be exposed to harmful pollutants in the material.
The hearing primarily focused on two cases of improper dumping at a residential area in Old Bridge next to Raritan Bay hard hit by erosion caused by Hurricane Sandy and a “mulching’’ center in Palmyra.
At the Old Bridge site, Frank Gillette, a broker with ties to organized crime, controlled several companies that trucked 350 truckloads of mostly construction debris to be used as clean fill to combat erosion there. His companies received $320,000 for the fill, which came from a Bronx factory, according to investigators. It was later found to contain high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a known carcinogen, investigators said.
The site, remains contaminated with dirty fill. Old Bridge has hired an engineering firm to come up with a cap for the polluted material at a cost of $100,000. It will cost another $200,000 to $300,000 to implement the cleanup plan, according to a special agent.
Gillette was called to testify at the hearing, but invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent on six occasions before being dismissed by the commission.
The other case cited by the SCI involved Jersey Recycling Services, a former recycling center in Palmyra. The site, supposedly accepting only mulch, was cited for taking in contaminated soil and construction debris from New Brunswick and Camden. Now closed, it was projected that it could cost several million dollars to clean it up properly, according to an investigator.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has issued a $50,000 administrative penalty in the Old Bridge case and is pursuing an investigation into the Palmyra case.
At the conclusion of its own investigation, the SCI said it will issue a report and recommendations for how to end the illegal dumping.
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