By Brenda Flanagan
“Well, they said it would all be all right. But I said, I don’t think so. And I’m right,” said Jean Ward.
Ward’s house in Cliffwood Beach sits perched on a bluff overlooking Raritan Bay, where waves erode the cliff face even during normal storms. But Superstorm Sandy wasn’t normal: it gouged away a gigantic slab of earth behind her house.
“It just went straight down. It was bad,” she said, adding she was afraid the house was going to go.
“I was over there a number of times and some of the homes, some of the structures on their properties were hanging off a cliff, they were hanging. And some of the homeowners, they had taken measures into their own hands,” said Old Bridge Mayor Owen Henry.
Henry let them try to backfill that gaping hole behind their houses as overwhelmed Old Bridge officials rallied to rescue Sandy victims in other parts of the township, unaware predators were poised to hit the desperate homeowners in Cliffwood Beach in the form of unlicensed construction recyclers.
“The town is dealing with 23 homes that were under water and a road that was under water. This cliff that would be an emergency any other time of the year, happened to happen right in the middle of this destruction from Sandy. … And these guys were able to like move in and take advantage,” said Andy Cliver, lead attorney for the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation.
“We thought it was right. They told us, it was. ‘This is the proper thing. This is the proper thing,’” Ward said.
But it wasn’t. Surveillance photos show mounds of debris piling up behind Ward’s house as recyclers dumped truckload after truckload from a construction site in the Bronx, according to investigators for New Jersey’s State Commission of Investigation.
“That’s 450 to 500 truckloads of material that was dumped there. You have everything from dirt — contaminated dirt. You have construction material, including concrete and rebar, and the biggest thing is a lot of crushed asphalt in there, which gave the presence of PAHs,” said Joseph Bredehoft, special agent for the SCI. And that’s carcinogenic.
“It could be leaching into the bay and it’s right alongside these folks’ homes,” Cliver said.
New Jersey’s SCI capped a six-year investigation of construction debris recycling by issuing a report called “Dirty Dirt.” It found multiple examples of toxic recycled material deliberately dumped across New Jersey, often by recyclers with alleged connections to organized crime. It subpoenaed Frank Gillette who agents claim trucked the debris to Cliffwood Beach from the Bronx, saved half a million bucks by not decontaminating it and cleared $320,000 after allegedly paying a $25,000 kickback to the Bonanno crime family.
When asked how he decided to allow this material to end up there, Gillette said, “I invoke my Fifth Amendment right.”
“We found that because the state does not require a background check for those that enter into the recycling industry, the state has been overrun with those who are operating underhandedly and are doing the wrong thing to line their pockets, essentially,” Cliver said.
“What they’re doing is contaminating other sites, leaching into waterways,” said Sen. Ray Lesniak.
That’s why Lesniak will introduce a bill to expand licensing requirements with criminal background checks to include recyclers. He sponsored the law licensing solid waste haulers.
“It was mobbed up at that time. I mean, there were bodies being found in car trunks and floating right in Elizabeth, where I live. So that legislation drove them out but we didn’t think of recycling at the time, because it was just in its infancy, it was just starting,” Lesniak said.
Recycling’s big business and reputable firms like Bayshore welcome some sort of licensing, but Vice President Gary Sondermeyer remains wary of red tape, he said over the phone.
“The devil is in the details, of how far it would go and that it wouldn’t be an overly difficult burden on the recycling community,” he said. “The costs associated with it, the timing associated with it, all that as well.”
“I want to get input from my attorney general first, about what he believes should be done in this area — if anything — and then we can go forward in conversations with the Legislature about it as well,” said Gov. Chris Christie.
As for costs, Old Bridge taxpayers shelled out $250,000 to cap the toxic materials behind Ward’s house after the SCI uncovered the truth about dirt brokers.
“It’s a significant issue so I think we welcome any legislation that would add another layer of protection for the residents and for the taxpayers,” said Old Bridge Township Administrator Christopher Marion.
Back here at Cliffwood Beach, the township will have to monitor the site for years to make sure that no contaminants are leaching out. Taxpayers will foot the bill.