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State inspector flagged problems at Princeton municipal site in February, yet NJDEP and local officials did nothing

An 11-cubic-yard uncovered dumpster full of bags of asbestos that was discovered and identified by a Mercer County official the first week of June. Photo: Received in response to public records request Planet Princeton filed with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

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.

An old satellite view of the Municipality of Princeton’s River Road facilities. On the upper left is the former town landfill, which has since been covered with solar arrays. In the center is the Stony Brook Regional Sewer Authority. To the right is the municipal sewer department and public works facility. The properties are all 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.

A photo a state inspector took on Feb. 15 at the Princeton municipal site on River Road shows mountains of dirt and water at the site.. Obtained via a public records request by Planet Princeton.

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.

A photo a state inspector took on Feb. 15 at the Princeton municipal site on River Road showing layers of dirt asphalt. Obtained via a public records request by Planet Princeton.

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.

A redacted June email regarding the February incident report and who followed up regarding the complaint.

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.

Directions for where contractors should dump were even posted on a sign. A state inspector took this photo at the Princeton municipal sewer department site on Feb. 15. Planet Princeton received it as part of a public records request.

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  1. So, they all knew and DID NOTHING! Earth mothers, sustainable bike riders, composting fans, not a word from you, guys, still. From the municipality we heard that they did not know and are angry. Well, they knew, and DID NOTHING! To those looking to mudding the waters and imply stupid theories, All was wrong, they knew, and DID NOTHING! Still waiting for the green light of your boss to say something? SHAME ON YOU ALL!!!! Looking more and more like a Trump administration.
    Thanks, Krystal!

  2. In addition to the very serious underlying matter, we need to know what occurred locally once Ms. Mercer emailed Mr. Hough. Did he receive it? Did he read it? Did he report it to the municipal administrator, the mayor, Council? If so, what if anything did they do? Were emails concerning the matter deleted? Was the matter discussed in texts, calls, in person rather than email? Did the February 26 meeting take place and what occurred there? Etc. Simply stating that the municipality intends to hire a consultant and try to recoup remediation costs from contractors is woefully inadequate.

    It is also well past time that we hear from the candidates for Council on this, preferably on this site as it is only through Krystal’s tenacity and hard work that we know about any of this. Although they may be understandably reluctant to comment on substance until the investigation is completed, they certainly can tell us how they propose to ensure managerial oversight and eliminate complacency, negligence, and corruption in our municipal operations. Ms. Pirone Lambros, Ms. Sacks, Mr. Bierman???

  3. Heads should roll for this institution rot. Not just those who work at the sewer department and knew what was happening and those who learned in February

  4. @Adam Bierman, would be interested in any specific proposals you or either of the other two candidates may have to prevent having to “roll heads” and take other reactive measures, at Princeton taxpayers’ expense, in the future.

  5. Dear Princeton Taxpayer, on vacation in Italy; so, here is a short version of how I will be proactive.

    For effective management, it comes down to people , policy, process, and politics. Policies need to be implemented with consistent follow up concerning accountability, best practices, lessons learned, etc. At least, that is what I was
    taught by my father, grandfather, professors in grad school and other sage people that I have encountered in life.

    In the few jobs where I have had management responsibility I would ask for detailed reports and frequent meetings with the person(s) under me, especially if I had just come on board. If I can’ t be everywhere , that is why I want to be able to trust that the person or persons under me are doing their job. I have always been open to comments, suggestions. I am not arrogant, there is always room for learning and improvement. I like people who take initiative to improve or solve an issue. I have praised that kind of employees for we achieve success working together, knowing the ins and outs, learning everyday, and yes, also following up with fastidious but needed details.

    NOTE- In the small Princeton bureaucracy, I can ‘t believe this malfeasance has become so entrenched, without anyone knowing. Since I have been on the campaign trail , I did my own cursory investigation of the policies , processes of Princeton government employees. I got a sniff of the alleged corrupt activities from employees who were afraid to blow the whistle: gas taken for private use, illegal dumping, snarled, bottle up lines of communication and a very low moral, they feel they are working in a hostile environment.

    What would I do? If anybody has trouble meeting his/her job description, performance, and benchmarks, I will work with them. I will ask them what support they need to be successful, I will let them know what my expectations are and the timetable I want them met by. I will keep a paper trail and update them on how I and they feel work is going. I have found that most people fire themselves, they just can’t competently do the job and resign when they realize you are not going away. Others get their act together and buy into what you are asking them to do and start doing their job. You have to be fair, firm, consistent with all the tedious follow up. That is YOUR JOB!

    To change the politics and culture in this current case you have to

    1.- ID the problem. What I see is a political culture where a clique has elevated group loyalty / conformity over what is good for the Princeton body politic for reasons of misplaced loyalty , personal power ego, or fear of being shunned by the group.

    Citizens like myself and others, especially those in power, have to speak up and turn over any rock when such blatant malfeasance occurs. Friends and peers tell others when they are wrong.

    2.- Citizens have to vote for people who represent their interests first, not for whom they are told because they belong to a private club or a political party.

    I am not naive. I know politics is the art of doing the possible , full of compromises , priorities and finite resources. But this sewer mess shows me the fish rots from the head down and we must send them a message, heads need to roll.

  6. Adam you are describing the job of a town administrator not the role of a council member but town needs someone to approach administration as your described

  7. Dear Anonymous ,
    I understand the counsel job is in the big scheme of government, to supervise the town administration. Obviously , they were not, be it the volunteers on the the Sewer Committe or the liaison from the council for that committee. I was not privy to the meetings before this latest scandal broke, with some of the communications redacted , someone knew they were in a “hot mess.” Now, they are trying to figure out proper crises management. It seems to me they are flying the plane, trying to fix the engine , and find out who broke it all at the same time.
    If I were elected, I surmise I would have to rapidly learn to navigate the cultural / tribal creeds of the current council, form alliances, find and contact mentors with management experience and actually listen to them, and start turning the ship around because this ship is sinking.

  8. Adam- what communications are you referring to? Maybe you could post them here? Also, for the redactions, there are very limited reasons, and embarrassment of public officials isn’t one of them. I think if a lawyer was involved you would find there would be a lot less redactions.

  9. The report says that an “email about the waste was sent “immediately to Princeton’s director of infrastructure and operations.” Who is this person and how much do they make? Seems like another over-paid, asleep-at-the-wheel town hall flunky who failed to do his/her job. Here we have state and local “government” that’s supposed to protect us or at lease respond to a crisis, and doing neither. A disgrace

  10. Oversight is a problem under this administration recall another issue last year with townships technology department. People fired. Equipment missing. Unacceptable.

  11. The Director of Infrastructure & Operations is Bob Hough, who has been placed on paid leave while the investigation is being conducted. If he did get that email and didn’t act, I suspect he is in well-deserved trouble. But the internal investigation cannot end with him. We need to know if others, the municipal Administrator in particular, abdicated their responsibilities to our serious environmental and financial detriment, as this and previous incidents seem to indicate.

    I generally agree with @Anonymous’ comments, but Mr. Bierman should get our thanks for at least responding, especially from vacation. This is very serious business. I think it is important to know how Council candidates propose to address what looks like a pattern of complacency and neglect that enabled this travesty, and other instances of wrongdoing, to occur. Do they have the executive-level experience to assess the competence of the current Administrator and Department Heads? If elected, are they willing to stand up to their friends when necessary, even those friends whose election campaigns they worked on? Or will they be reluctant to rock the boat? Because, while I know there are many extraordinarily competent and dedicated municipal employees who do a lot with not much, I think Princeton is in dire need of some serious boat rocking. This can’t continue.

  12. Bob Hough has got to go! No deals either, he should lose everything. It’s a shame that the email sent to him only goes to him, that clearly illustrates his intentions to covering up this fiasco from the start. The DEP should revise that policy and send that by email and in writing to multiple people in the town’s administration. It’s also a shame that the inspector’s findings were left on the state scrap pile, she did her job and this could’ve been stopped about a million dollars ago.

    It’s been said before that taking away these employees pensions can go a small way to paying for all of this instead of paying them for the rest of their lives. It’s also the only way to deter this from happening elsewhere. They knew about this for way too long to plead any sort of ignorance.

    New leadership is desperately needed in this town and I hope this situation brings that need to light. And still not a word from the Mayor and all the champions for the environment in this town, that’s pathetic!!!

    Thanks again to Krystal for outstanding reporting.

  13. I agree with concerned Princeton Taxpayer. Instead of a walk-in-the-park general election between two Democrats (and one independent), they should be forced to explain how they would avoid this kind of head-in-the-sand vigilance in future.

  14. Great reporting. Thanks for keeping track of developments. I am disappointed in the DEP response. What are they hiding?

  15. Some committee members, especially on the Planning Board, have been in place far too long. Speaking as a senior citizen and longtime taxpayer, I’d like to see mandatory retirement from public life at 70 and/or term limits for town service. These are not tenured positions, folks– new faces and new ideas are desperately needed. And genuine diversity means some of those need to be conservatives or moderates, low income residents, minority citizens, friends of conservation, and slow- or no-growth advocates. That makes you uncomfortable? Welcome to democracy.

  16. A couple of questions concerning the firing of the Princeton Sewer Department employees, have they been replaced so important work is not neglected? Of course, without taking kickbacks from the private sector. What is the answer?

    I was “ told” that during “computergate”, another scandal where municipal employees were fired /suspended for trying to sell used work computers, IT work fell behind. Apparently, the municipal government was only able to get one IT person from a temp agency to do the work of three people. What is happening currently at IT? Have they caught up with work? Could we, the taxpayers, learn more about what actually happened and how the situation was dealt?

    We always hear bits and pieces, there is no ownership of mistskes or transparency owed to those who keep footing the bills.

  17. To Pro Bono
    First full disclosure. I was a candidate for Princeton Council in 2018 and am currently running for council as an independent. I applied twice to be on boards and committees but was not accepted.
    I agree with you wholeheartedly, there is need for political diversity in local government. As a private citizen/ candidate, I think there is need to have non partisan elections, no PCDo pay to play etc. The current political “clique” has escalated group solidarity and conformity over what is good for the town. I would even call conflict of interests because friendships are in the way, and it seems that people can’t bear the possibility of not been invited to the mayor’s party. I say it once again, potholes, dysfunctional parking meters , corrupt employees, do not care about party affiliation, they just need to be fixed.

  18. I live near the sewer department site. Over the last two and a half years I witnessed extensive tree removal and earth moving occurring. Then, periodically in the dead of night loud banging noises of dump truck gates and dumpsters being off loaded. Because of the noise I visited the site to see what might be happening. A large area had been was cleared and filled with rubble -several dumpsters were about. I was met by a man who worked there who told me it was a recycling facility and that I had to leave. I explained why I was there and he told me that the gate was locked 24/7 and no trucks could get in at night. The night noise continued and about a year ago or so I reached out to the Public Works department – Mr. Hough assured me that the gates were locked and no dumping could be happening there but said he would look into it….

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