State Investigation of NJ Recycling Industry Uncovers Shady Practices

By Brenda Flanagan

Along a stretch of Raritan Bay called Cliffwood Beach in Old Bridge, dark mounds piled up in the months following Superstorm Sandy: 350 truckloads of debris contaminated with carcinogens from a construction site in the Bronx supposedly “recycled” but basically just dumped, according to special agents from the State Commission of Investigation.

“It was recycled concrete aggregate, it was rebar, wood, asphalt, brick, solid and broken up, and dirt. The township was totally unaware of this. There were no approvals requested or granted,” said Joseph Bredehoff, special agent with the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation.

The SCI’s investigation of New Jersey’s recycling industry — called “Dirty Dirt” — uncovered shady, unlicensed operators with ties to the New York mob, exploiting regulatory loopholes to dump tainted construction debris around New Jersey.

“And because the industry is so loosely regulated, this activity does not just pose a threat to the immediate dump sites or impact those who live nearby. The damage can include polluted runoff to creeks and streams, to toxic dirt passed off as properly recycled topsoil,” said SCI Acting Executive Director Lee Seglem.

Follow the money. Proper recycling the Cliffwood material should’ve cost half a million bucks. But the SCI claims that Frank Gillette — the so-called “dirt broker” who trucked that debris from the Bronx — paid zero and made at least $320,000. They claim Gillette also paid a $25,000 kickback to the Bonanno crime family. The SCI subpoenaed Gillette who repeatedly pleaded the Fifth.

“How did you decide to allow this material to end up there?” asked SCI Counsel Andrew Cliver.

“I invoke my Fifth Amendment right,” Gillette said.

Capping the contaminated site will cost Old Bridge $250,000 — and it doesn’t end there.

“And they will put test wells in and for the next 30 years test these materials with these tests wells to make sure there’s no leakage or runoff into the water,” Bredehoff said.

At a South Jersey recycling center called JRS, operators piled illegally dumped debris and soil also contaminated with carcinogens next to Pennsauken Creek.

“There’s debris and what appears to be runoff from that debris as well heading right towards the creek — is that fair to say? Correct,” said C. Andrew Cliver.

Moreover, the contaminated dirt sits next to — and was possibly mixed with — mulch and topsoil sold to the public by the now-abandoned business. It operated with a temporary permit, but the SCI claims JRS used falsified letters and lab reports to avoid DEP regulations. The owner also pleaded the Fifth. Legit businesses like Bayshore Recycling called for more regulation and told the SCI dirty operators undercut their industry.

“It’s a tough business and when you have opportunities where people can cheat, it dramatically hurts our business opportunities that do it the right way,” said Bayshore Recycling owner Gary Sondermeyer.

This SCI investigation is not complete. But future recommendations may include asking the New Jersey Legislature to regulate the recycling industry to require background checks to avoid what it calls a “reckless menace.”