The Princeton Council voted unanimously on Monday night to approve a $392,420 contract with environmental firm Whitman Associates to conduct more analysis and testing at the town’s sewer operating committee facility on River Road. An illegal dump was being operated at the site, where contractors allegedly were allowed to dispose of waste in exchange for bribing employees with cash.
Planet Princeton first reported the existence of the dump in May of 2019. In addition to being allowed to dump asphalt and other materials at the site, at least one contractor allegedly used municipal employees and town equipment and trucks for private residential projects in town.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection sent inspectors to the site in June of 2019 after citizens forwarded the story to them. The state inspection confirmed that asphalt and other materials had been dumped at the site and that a container full of asbestos sat at the site. The state fined the municipality $35,000 for operating an illegal dump.
Planet Princeton had to file a lawsuit against the municipality and the county to obtain public records related to the site in 2019. Planet Princeton, represented by public records lawyer Walter Leurs, won that lawsuit.
Another Planet Princeton open public records request with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection revealed that a state inspector had raised questions about what was happening at the site when she visited the adjacent Stony Brook Regional Sewer Authority. Her complaint somehow fell through the cracks and the state did nothing until June, after the initial story was reported. Planet Princeton made another public records request with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection later in the year and had to file a lawsuit to obtain those records as well.
At least four municipal employees were fired as a result of an investigation about the illegal dumping at the site.
Local elected officials have often downplayed the dumping and issues at the site, and have said municipal insurance will cover the costs of the cleanup, up to a million dollars. The site has been closed since the summer of 2019.
Marc Dashield, the town administrator, said on Monday night that the town is having difficulties getting its insurance carrier to cover the claim. The council approved the new contract with Whitman Associates, but Dashield said the town will hold off on executing the contract until after Dec. 18, when officials expect to learn whether the insurance carrier will cover the claim or not. “If they do not, we will take actions against the insurance carrier,” Dashield said.
During the virtual council meeting Monday night, Planet Princeton tried to ask a question during the discussion on the resolution by raising a virtual hand, but was not called on. Planet Princeton followed up with an email to officials asking how much had been paid to Whitman Associates previously for work at the River Road site related to the dumping.
Dashield said in an email on Tuesday that the town has paid Whitman Associates $173,375 since 2019 for survey work, soil sampling, and asbestos disposal.
If the new contract is executed, the total paid to Whitman for assessing the site would be more than $560,000.
The work already done by Whitman Associates in 2019 included a visual inspection, a geophysical survey using ground-penetrating radar, and soil testing. The investigation revealed large stockpiles of materials on the site that contained “anthropogenic source materials”, in other words, pollutants generated by humans. The materials included construction debris, asphalt milling, gravel, and light municipal waste.
Whitman’s investigation report was shared with state officials. In Novemver of 2019, the New Jersey Bureau of Solid Waste Compliance and Enforcement sent a letter to officials directing the municipality to remove all stockpiled materials or to demonstrate what remediation steps would comply with state regulations.
The municipality then requested a proposal from Whitman Associates to conduct additional site evaluation and testing in order to develop the plan required by the state order. Whitman Associates will conduct the additional testing to determine the affected areas at the site and will conduct ecological assessments because of the potential impact on wetlands in the area.
According to correspondence from Whitman Associates, the state is requiring the removal of all “visual solid waste” at the site. Materials that don’t contain visual solid waste have the potential to remain on the site. Phase one of the work at the site will include soil borings to calculate the volume of soil that will need to be removed. Phase two work will focus on ecologically sensitive areas.
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