Official warned Christie would ‘take a bath’ in election if Roxbury landfill weren’t shut down
In a federal court filing Friday, the owner of the troubled Fenimore landfill aims to bolster his claims the Roxbury site was taken out of his control for political reasons — citing a 2013 email from a local official saying Gov. Chris Christie and others would “take a bath” in coming elections if they didn’t shut down the site.
“We need to meet as soon as possible on this subject,” Anthony M. Bucco, who both serves as Roxbury’s attorney and as a Republican assemblyman, says in a May 13, 2013, email addressed to Department of Environmental Protection Agency Chief of Staff Magdalena Padilla. “The gov., the legislators and local officials are going to take a bath in this next election if we don’t get this place shut down soon. I really don’t think you guys understand how bad this is getting. We have done all we can. There must be some other options you can explore.”
On June 26, the DEP shut down Fenimore owner SEP’s state-approved project to cap the long-abandoned landfill and install a solar facility, saying SEP had mismanaged the project and allowed large hydrogen sulfide releases that caused rotten egg-like smells for miles in Roxbury beginning in late 2012. Those gas releases have been connected to gypsum in the debris SEP hauled in from DEP-approved recycling centers.
SEP obtained the Bucco letter in response to a public records request, it says in Friday’s filing to the federal court. Through the filing, it hopes to support an argument it put forward in a complaint last year, that political motivations drove several officials to scrutinize or punish SEP and the Fenimore project.
Bucco, reached by NJ.com late Friday, said he didn’t remember sending the letter. But he said he was sure it didn’t come from his legislative office — and would have come from his law office, through which he was representing Roxbury’s interests. As Roxbury’s attorney, he’d been involved in several efforts to keep SEP from trucking in debris.
“This is typical (SEP attorney) Matt Fredericks, playing with facts,” Bucco said.
He drew a a sharp distinction between political activities as an assemblyman and activities as Roxbury’s legal counsel, and said he had frequent communication with Padilla, urging intervention.
“For him to say that Assemblyman Bucco sent this is very misleading,” Bucco said.
It is not clear in the Friday’s filing from what email address Bucco sent the message to the DEP, but a message quoted below it was sent to Bucco at his law firm’s address.
SEP and the DEP have been locked in litigation on several fronts, as the developer has sought to void the state takeover, done under the authority of a bill regulating so-called “legacy” landfills Christie signed the same day as the takeover. The DEP plans to cap the area where SEP trucked in construction debris — over the objections of a residents’ group eager to have the material trucked out — and wants SEP to take on the costs for the remediation.
Fenimore plan met with screams and song
The state Department of Environmental Protection got a harsh response in Roxbury March 11, when it said its plan to cap the troubled Fenimore landfill site was a done deal, despite the objections of dozens of residents who spoke and the shouts of hundreds more who attended.
“What’s amazing is that since the beginning this cleanup has always been about politics,” SEP owner Richard Bernardi said in an email to NJ.com Friday. “No one has ever been interested in getting the site properly closed.”
Friday’s filing also cites a letter sent this week to Christie by two prominent Democratic legislators, each chairing environmental committees in their respective chambers, saying the state Attorney General should investigate the DEP’s handling of Fenimore.
In the letter, Sen. Bob Smith and Assemblywoman Grace Spencer wrote: “There is firm reason to believe that the cleanup of this facility has been grossly mismanaged, and as a result, the residents around the landfill have had to suffer.” Smith chairs the state Senate’s Environmental and Energy Committee, and Spencer chairs the Assembly’s Environment and Solid Waste Committee.
The legislators fault the DEP for a lack of transparency through the process, and say the DEP’s capping plan doesn’t take into account long-term maintenance of the site. They cite concerns an oxidizer and scrubber system the DEP installed — and credits for greatly reduced hydrogen sulfide levels over the last several months — poses its own environmental and health problems.
“This letter lends substantial credibility to plaintiff’s (SEP’s) allegation that the DEP charged in and stole SEP’s property (and in the process stopped SEP from properly addressing the odor complaints) under the guise of acting in the public interest when in fact the contrary is true,” the SEP letter filed Friday states. “The DEP knew or should have known that its stated action plan was unsound, but the DEP attacked SEP anyway because the decision makers feared a ‘bath’ in the next election if they didn’t.”
Mid-day Friday, DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese sent NJ.com an email in response to the legislators’ letter that alleged his agency had mismanaged the project:
“We are working diligently to expedite the capping of this site, to permanently solve this odor issue. We are currently completing an extension of the gas collection system to draw even more H2S from the landfill,” he wrote. “This work will be completed this year. And the gas collection will continue while capping work in underway. Also, we have had the odors at this site under control for many months, and have continued to monitor the site for emissions. We are intent on completing this work in 2014 and will ensure full maintenance of the site as long as required.”
Ragonese’s email did not directly address the legislators’ chief complaints regarding transparency through the process or long-term maintenance of the cap.
A later email regarding the SEP filing also didn’t address its specific points, but said only “Mr. Bernardi and SEP are responsible for the problems that occurred at Fenimore. They are just trying to divert attention from their responsibility.”
The governor’s office referred any comment on the legislators’ letter to the DEP, and the Office of the Attorney General declined comment. The governor’s office has not yet returned a message left late Friday seeking comment on the SEP filing.
In a statement released Friday, Roxbury officials said while they “appreciate the work of the governor and the state legislature to secure the property and to address this serious issue,” they would welcome an investigation into the DEP oversight.”
“Roxbury residents have struggled for more than two years with the reopening of the landfill without the Township’s involvement. Our residents must be assured that every step has been taken to ensure that the air and water in Roxbury are safe,” Mayor Jim Rilee said in the statement.
Bob Schultz — head of the Roxbury Environmental Action Coalition, a residents’ group formed in response to Fenimore concerns — said he welcomed the legislators’ call for an investigation. He said he only wished township officials had taken similar steps, and that the legislators would seek an inquiry into the Department of Health’s role in the landfill oversight.
“Gov. Christie and the DEP allowed this, and they’re doing it all wrong,” he said. “They’re not sharing the information.”
Both SEP and the township have recently sought soil samples from Fenimore, which each says could be useful in formulating alternatives to the DEP’s capping plan. The DEP has declined requests from both, and the township recently lost a court case seeking the samples. SEP’s own case seeking them is pending.
The legislators called that refusal to conduct and release soil test results “suspicious.” Schultz said he wants independent tests of the soil, air and water in the area done, as he doesn’t trust the DEP.