Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson issued a temporary restraining order on Monday evening to stop the governing body of Princeton from rescinding a multi-million-dollar contract with a sewer repair contractor.
The Princeton Council was slated to rescind a $2.75 million contract for sewer rehabilitation work on Spruce Street and Linden Lane with Integrated Construction and Utilities of New Jersey (ICUNJ), an Edison-based company that does sewer repair, demolition, and asbestos abatement work. A container filled with bags of asbestos materials that was linked to the company was discovered by county and state officials at the municipal sewer department facility on River Road in early June. On June 12 — one day after the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection issued a notice of violation to the municipality for operating an illegal landfill at the River Road site — Princeton Administrator Marc Dashield sent a letter to ICUNJ saying the contract would be canceled.
ICUNJ filed a lawsuit against the town on June 28, contending that the company was directed by Princeton officials to leave the bags of asbestos-containing materials in a container at the sewer department site on River Road in order to avoid alarming residents. The company followed that procedure from 2008 to 2018, according to the owner, whose lawyer argued that therefore ICUNJ shouldn’t be punished for just following directions.
Lawyers for the town argued in a legal brief that ICUNJ representatives can’t say that they were just following orders, and that the contractor was aware of state regulations for asbestos removal and disposal. They also said the town has a video of ICUNJ placing a container on the River Road site.
In court, one part of the debate centered on the wording of a state statute regarding the disposal of asbestos. The statute says the materials must be transported directly “from the point of generation” to a solid waste landfill or transfer station that is permitted to receive such waste.
The lawyer for the contractor, Jeffrey Wilson of Florham Park, argued that the entire municipality could be deemed the point of generation. The lawyer for the municipality, Anthony Todaro, argued that the statute is clear and the municipal site is not the point of generation. Todaro cited the state statute, but did not provide any back-up documentation or certifications from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection regarding what the “point of generation” is or whether the state deems the storing of the container on the municipal property a violation of the statute.
Steven Eleftheriou, the owner of ICUNJ, said he started working with officials from the former Princeton Borough and Princeton Township back in 2004 when he was with another company, He said he directly started working with the two Princetons as the owner of ICUNJ in 2007, doing road repair work, storm drain work, paving, and municipal sewer line replacement work. Eleftheriou estimated that 75 percent of his business is from Princeton. The contract the council was slated to rescind was his largest ever in Princeton, he said.
“They have been the primary source of our revenues,” Eleftheriou said. “I’ve enjoyed working with Princeton, and offered a unique talent they appreciated, focused on Princeton.”
Eleftheriou said he has only received accolades for his work over the years, and has never been fined or been issued any kind of notice of violation. Princeton officials always found his work to be excellent, he said, and even sought him out for free expert advice. Emails he read from showed he has a close relationship with some of the municipal employees. They had nicknames for each other, and he said the municipal employees called him “Strike” because he knew how to knock out tasks. He often dealt with senior engineering and infrastructure employees, but also worked with sewer operating committee employees.
He said normally when removing asbestos-containing materials like the Transite sewer pipes in Princeton, signs would be placed on containers on site, warning people that there was asbestos in the containers. “We were told there is no way they would allow us to put them up,” Eleftheriou said. He said when he did put warning signs up, municipal employees removed them. Eleftheriou said former head of infrastructure Robert Hough told him he was “absolutely not going to put a dumpster on site.”
“I was told it would cause alarm, and they didn’t want panic in the neighborhood,” Eleftheriou said, adding that he was told the municipality could provide a remote location for the asbestos container on River Road. He then produced an old email from 2008 or 2009 from a sewer operating committee employee that was copied to other engineering and sewer operating committee employees, directing him to place the asbestos materials at the River Road site.
Eleftheriou said once a container was full, a carrier would come and get it. A copy of the manifest was always provided to Princeton officials, he said.
One container, allegedly from ICUNJ’s last municipal project, is still at the River Road site more than a year later. Eleftheriou said the carrier that was supposed to pick up the container at site, Carnavale, went out of business. Another company, Champion, was supposed to pick up the container but never did, he said. The company was ready to pick up the container in June, Eleftheriou said, but was not allowed to remove the container. ICUNJ also has not been allowed to remove its trucks and equipment from the River Road site. He said all the vehicles and equipment were there in preparation for the next contract. Police secured the site in June after the Mercer County Prosecutor began an investigation into illegal dumping at the site that allegedly took place in exchange for kickbacks.
Jacobson pointed out that the lawyers for the municipality did not produce any documents or certifications from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection regarding the procedures for handling an asbestos container. She also noted that no citations have been issued to ICUNJ from the state or the municipality. Jacobson also pointed out that the container issue was related to past contracts, and not the current contract. The default clause for the contract that was cited for cancelling the contract refers to current contract issues, not past contracts, she said.
Typically, a default happens when a contractor goes bankrupt, is in financial trouble, or is behind and is unable to do the work, Jacobson said. “Those are the kinds of things we often see — financial problems leading to default,” she said. “I could not find anything where this kind of default had been claimed by a town to stop a project before any work had started.” She said she is not aware of a case where conduct under a prior contract is used as a basis for the default for a current contract where work has not yet begun. She also raised the issue of senior officials being aware of and directing ICUNJ to put the bags of asbestos in a container at the River Road site, and questioned whether people in multi-million dollar homes on Library Place would want to see a dumpster on their street for months.
A cancellation of the contract could do irreparable harm to ICUNJ, she said, noting that Eleftheriou has had a good relationship with town officials for more than a decade. The company has already spent money in preparation for contract work, and Eleftheriou said his business would go under if the contract is allowed to be canceled.
Jacobson told the lawyers for both sides to talk and figure out next steps in the case, and let her know how to proceed, and whether the court would need to schedule a case management conference.
During the hearing, the lawyer for ICUNJ tried to have the reporter from Planet Princeton thrown out, saying reporters shouldn’t be allowed to attend the hearing. “This is an open court,” Jacobson said, noting that lawyers had not filed a motion to make the proceedings closed to the public. The lawyer for the municipality chatted with ICUNJ lawyer and tapped him on the shoulder, and a few minutes later they both approached the judge for a sidebar conversation, appearing to again unsuccessfully request that the reporter be removed from the courtroom.