When an employee from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection came to Princeton in February to conduct the annual inspection of the town’s closed landfill, what she found alarmed her. After looking around at the municipal facilities, the inspector contacted local and state officials and filed a complaint with her agency’s own hotline, which is used to report environmental incidents and abuses in New Jersey for investigation.
Yet back then, officials from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the local municipality appear to have done little or nothing to follow up on the inspector’s complaint and conduct investigations of their own. Instead, illegal dumping continued at the Princeton municipal site on River Road until June, after stories were published about problems at the site.
Planet Princeton filed a public records request with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection last week using the state’s Open Public Records Act, requesting emails and documents from state officials regarding the 60-acre Princeton sewer department site on River Road. The site includes wetlands, and is located just west of the Millstone River in the environmentally sensitive northern section of Princeton. It is also located next to the closed municipal landfill, with the Stony Brook Regional Sewer Authority plant facilities sandwiched between parts of the two properties. All three sites are separated by fences.
What the documents reveal
On Feb. 15, Carole Mercer, an environmental specialist with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Solid Waste Compliance and Enforcement Program in Trenton, conducted her annual inspection of the municipality’s closed landfill, which now has a solar arrays on top of it, in preparation for a meeting with town officials and their consultants that was scheduled for Feb. 26.
At 1:12 p.m. on Feb. 20, Mercer filed a complaint with the NJDEP hotline reporting that she observed “numerous solid waste violations” in the sewer department yard during her inspection of the adjacent landfill, including, according to the hotline incident report: potentially contaminated soil being accepted and stockpiled, asphalt millings being used as fill and not road base, waste water treatment plant grit spilling out of a containment area, overflowing dumpsters with litter sitting in standing water around them, a significant quantity of tree parts present on site for more than six months, and street sweepings stored uncovered and not in a dumpster.
She also wrote about what she saw in a New Jersey Environmental Management System report about the Feb. 15 annual visit to the closed landfill. Mercer wrote then that she observed four stockpiles of dirt mixed with asphalt, wood, brick, litter and plastic at the closed landfill site. According to her report, the piles were staged in three areas on the old landfill and next to a shed in front of the police department’s firing range. She observed another pile of the same materials inside the sewer department and public works storage yard site, and observed other solid waste violations at the sewer department site.
“Those concerns were referred to the DEP Hotline for investigation,” Mercer wrote in her February report. She also wrote that an email about the waste was sent “immediately” to Princeton’s director of infrastructure and operations, and that all of the issues at the closed landfill and the sewer department property would be discussed with the director at a meeting scheduled for Feb. 26.
Items checked off on a form included with the February written report for investigation included: unpermitted illegal solid waste facilities, unregistered solid waste transporter activities, unregistered illegal regulated medical waste transporter activities, and uncertified solid waste utility activities.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s solid waste division headquarters and water quality division were sent the hotline incident complaint reports, according to public records. Mercer also forwarded her concerns to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s southern region field office, which covers Mercer County and 10 other counties in the state. In a Feb. 20 email to officials at that office, she wrote of the River Road site, “Just giving you a heads up. There are are numerous issues here, including a substantial quantity of potentially contaminated soil.” She then suggested that an NJDEP inspector accompany any county environmental health representative the agency dispatched to the site.
Fast forward to June of 2019
In June, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection began receiving links to stories published on Planet Princeton about illegal dumping at the River Road site that detailed allegations that contractors were allowed to dump potentially hundreds of truckloads of dirt, asphalt, concrete, trash, diesel and other materials at the site in exchange for cash kickbacks to a municipal employee or employees. Based on the first story in the series, a resident of Princeton called the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection hotline at 8:29 a.m. on the morning of June 3.
The complaint was assigned to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Case Assignment after an official from the agency’s Bureau of Emergency Response spoke with a lieutenant from the Princeton Police Department and a Mercer County public health official on June 3. A county public health official then visited the site and reported back to the state agency on findings. Among other things, the county public heath official found bags of asbestos in a large container at the site.
Meanwhile, according to public records, officials at the agency emailed back and forth trying to figure out what had happened back in February and who, if anyone, had followed up back then.
“I did a quick drive thorough of the yard because I became suspicious. I noticed a lot of dirt stockpiled and asphalt millings below natural elevations, among other solid waste issues,” Mercer wrote in a June email, noting that she had contacted the agency’s hotline about the issues back in February.
“I did not personally go in to assign it within the the NJEMS incident screen after the hotline recorded it and gave it an incident number, as my understanding was that the D.O. was supposed to do that,” Mercer wrote in another June email.
Asked if he had followed up on the February complaint, one employee in the solid waste division wrote in an email that the complaint wasn’t referred to him as others thought. Officials asked whether the issue was referred to the stormwater division or a county public health official.
On June 6, Planet Princeton sent an email to the spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Larry Hajna, asking what the department was doing about the allegations. On June 7, Hajna said he was checking into it. On June 10, Planet Princeton reached out again asking for a response. “No, I haven’t received any information on this yet. Will let you know when I do,” Hajna wrote, adding in another email “At this juncture, I don’t know what involvement, if any, DEP has in the incident you described in your initial email.” He then referred Planet Princeton to the agency’s Data Miner public database of inspections and enforcement actions.
The public records request from Planet Princeton was forwarded to various agency employees, according to public records. Some of the exchanges between employees about the River Road site were redacted, with the agency citing “intra-agency advisory, consultative or deliberative material” as the reason for the redactions. One email includes a screenshot of the incident report from the agency’s Data Miner public records database of inspections and enforcement actions. for the incident Mercer reported in February. All of the text of the email has been redacted from the public records provided to Planet Princeton. An online Data Miner search of the February incident shows that as of June, the follow up status was blank.
On the morning of June 10, a prominent Princeton resident contacted the New Jersey Assistant Commissioner for Compliance and Enforcement regarding the Planet Princeton stories about the site. Then on June 11, four representatives from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, including members of the Department of Solid Waste Compliance and Enforcement, visited the site.
After the visit, the municipality of Princeton was issued a notice of violation for running a solid waste facility without having a solid waste facility permit. The municipality is required to submit a compliance response form within 15 days of the notice detailing how the situation will be remedied. All of the solid waste at the River Road site must be taken to an approved solid waste facility within 30 days of the violation notice, according to the notice. Town officials said in a press statement that the town is hiring a licensed site remediation specialist to advise the municipality about necessary cleanup actions.
“The municipality is exploring all avenues for holding all contractors responsible for damages incurred by the town,” Princeton Administrator Marc Dasheild wrote. “The municipality continues to cooperate with the Mercer County Prosecutors office as they evaluate criminal related matters.”
When asked on June 14 whether the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection had any comment about what kind of follow up took place after the February complaint was filed, and if there was no follow up by officials, why not, Hajna, the spokesman, said he was busy and would respond on Monday. Then on Monday, June 17, he wrote: “Inspectors from the DEP recently conducted a visit to the site. The inspection report will be posted to DEP’s Data Miner online database. Any enforcement actions that may arise from this inspection will also be posted to Data Miner.”
Planet Princeton wrote back on June 17 stressing that we were referring the complaint made back in February when Mercer reported, and why it appears that there was no follow up by other state officials back then. As of Friday, June 21, Hajna has not responded.
Support Planet Princeton
Local investigative, enterprise and community journalism.
Funded by our readers, available to all.