The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is currently investigating alleged illegal dumping of contaminated waste in a wetlands area in Secaucus. Approximately five acres have been allegedly filled in without permits or approvals on property owned by Eugene Mori, who lives in Florida and owns multiple properties throughout the Meadowlands area. The five acres is part of 137 acres of tidal creeks and wetlands Mori owns on West Side Avenue bordering North Bergen, according to the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission’s spokesperson Brian Aberback.
Violation notices have been issued to Mori by the NJMC and the DEP. Representatives from the DEP, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Hudson Regional Health Commission, the NJMC, and local officials met at the end of March as part of the ongoing investigation and to continue to coordinate the clean-up of the area, which is in Secaucus but borders on North Bergen.
“We never thought something of this magnitude could happen during the daylight.” – Vincent Prieto
Dumping in a flood zone
“This has been going on for a while,” said DEP spokesperson Lawrence Hajna last month.
The DEP issued a violation notice to Mori last November for allegedly dumping solid waste in a flood hazard zone. The materials included soil, rocks, asphalt chunks, concrete, wood, metal, road millings, tile wall board and other debris, some of which tested positive for asbestos.
Property owner Mori has said that he was not responsible, according to Hajna, and the DEP has not arrived at any conclusions.
Mori could not be reached for comment.
The state has stringent restrictions on development in zones adjacent to surface waters in order to protect the public from the hazards of flooding, preserve the quality of surface waters and to protect the natural wildlife and vegetation in such habitats. Solid waste should be disposed of at a permanent facility, according to the DEP.
“A piece of tile waste did [allegedly] test positive for asbestos,” said Hajna. Asbestos has often been used as insulation and a fire retardant but when asbestos-containing materials are damaged or disturbed by repair, remodeling or demolition activities, microscopic fibers become airborne and can be inhaled into the lungs, where they can cause significant health problems, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
“It is hard to say if it does pose a threat,” said Hajna. “More sampling needs to be done.”
A shrinking ecosystem
“The Meadowlands has been victimized like this for far too long,” said Sheehan. He visited the site last month after reports of removal of the materials without a permit and said that equipment was left behind. On a visit by The Reporter to the site in March earth moving equipment was visible on the grounds and the land behind it was flat and rocky.
“We’ve lost like two-thirds of the original wetlands acreage that we have had here over the past 40 years,” Sheehan said. Illegal dumping is not new to the area, noted Sheehan, and he said it has gone on everywhere throughout the Meadowlands.
“You’d lose an acre here and an acre there. You end up damaging the system.” He said that the dumping has an adverse effect on the environment and disrupts the natural wildlife that exists in the area, including birds that migrate through the Meadowlands and fish in the Hackensack River.
“The bigger [the wetlands] the better it works. Conversely, the smaller we make it, the more impaired it becomes,” said Sheehan.
Restoring the land
“As a result of the notice of violation Mr. Mori has [allegedly] been moving the materials,” added Hajna. “He’ll have to restore it to its pre-existing condition…we’ll continue to monitor for compliance.”
According to the Riverkeeper, the removal of the materials from the site has also allegedly been performed without permits.
“If you do any work in wetlands, you have to have a permit,” said Sheehan.
Aberback said the NJMC was not copied on the DEP violation notice issued in November, but has given Mori until April 13 to restore the site to its original state. Mori appealed a violation notice that the NJMC issued on March 16 ordering him to cease and desist all filling and grading activities and requested a cleanup plan by April 2.
According to a letter to Mori from Sara J. Sundell, the NJMC’s director of land use management, dated March 16, Mori had failed to obtain a zoning certificate from the NJMC to fill the wetlands.
The parcel of land is one of the biggest undeveloped properties in Secaucus, according to Town Administrator David Drumeler.
A 600,000 square foot international trade facility and a new Extended Stay America Hotel was proposed for a portion of the Mori property by three business partners in February 2011, pending an application with the NJMC, which has thus far not been received.
“It is our property within our jurisdiction. We’d be disappointed if we found illegal dumping anywhere,” said Drumeler. “We want to remain as clean and contamination free as we possibly can.”
Incidents discovered in the past
Mori was issued violations for alleged illegal dumping in North Bergen in 2006 by the NJMC, according to letters from the commission to Mori dated in July 2006. Just recently, Secaucus officials say they discovered activity of the same nature near Paterson Plank Road. On Jan. 14, the Secaucus police responded to reports of alleged illegal dumping at an area across from 101 Paterson Plank Road, according police Captain John Buckley.
Construction Code Official Vincent Prieto was on the scene at the time of the incident and said that a Department of Public Works employee spotted trucks jumping the curb on Paterson Plank Road. After they called the police they blocked the entrance and waited for the trucks to return.
According to Buckley, Steve Guido from North Jersey Recycling, located on West Side Avenue, allegedly appeared on site and said that his company was working for Mori.
“He said he was [allegedly] asked to raise the grade of the road,” said Prieto. “I told him that he needs permits for landfill, that [he] needs prior approvals.” Prieto asked Guido to stop immediately and he agreed.
According to Buckley, no summons or tickets were issued at the time, no arrests were made, and no photos or anything of evidentiary value were taken.
The 2006 violation notices that were issued to Mori by the NJMC because fill operations were allegedly taking place at two locations on West Side Avenue on areas that contained large amounts of wetlands in North Bergen without approval or permits. On one notice dated July 20, 2006 the agency said that their inspector had been advised by Steve Guido that a sand and gravel recycling facility was being planned for the site at 6800 West Side Ave. The letter indicates that no application had been made.
In a second violation notice, dated July 31, 2006 for another section of property located on West Side Avenue, the NJMC said that Mori disputed his need to provide information regarding the wetlands on his property. He was ordered to cease and desist the filling of the property and to restore it to its original condition.
“We never thought something of this magnitude could happen during the daylight,” said Prieto.
According to town attorney Anthony D’Elia, town officials are moving aggressively to pursue the matter at the local level and to take legal action.
The NJMC is considering their options, according to Aberback, given Mori’s recent appeal of their violation notice.
At the grassroots level, Sheehan has said that his organization will take action if required. “Riverkeeper is totally prepared to enforce the Clean Water Act if we have to,” said Sheehan.
The DEP plans to issue Mori a letter that outlines the steps that need to be taken to clean up the site and do future testing according to Hajna.
“Our first objective is to get compliance [and] to get the environmental hazard addressed,” said Hajna.
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.