Loopholes Let Criminals, Gangsters Steal into NJ Recycling Industry

Tom Johnson | August 9, 2016 | Energy & Environment
Despite reports dating back to 2011, state has yet to move against ‘bad actors’ who dump contaminated waste and toxic fill

dump truck
The state needs to close loopholes to keep organized crime and felons out of the recycling industry, a lawmaker said yesterday, citing a State Commission of Investigation report that documents cases of illegal dumping of toxic-tainted soil and debris.

“At the end of the day, we need a system that keeps the bad actor out,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), referring to how the state’s decades-old licensing law for the waste industry is failing to weed out the criminal element. “The mob’s back in the solid waste industry; they’re back big time.’’

His frustration was voiced during a hearing on a bill (S-2306) by the Senate Environment and Energy committee aimed at expanding who is covered by the law and required to undergo background checks to keep unscrupulous operators out of the sector.

But the attorney general’s office expressed reservations about extending the scope of the law, known as the A-901 program, to include those involved in recycling. It was adopted when organized crime was rife in the hauling industry in the 1980s.

That view conflicts with a recommendation in a 2011 SCI report that called for those in the recycling industry to be licensed, a step once again the agency suggested lawmakers adopt.

Five years ago, the attorney general’s office was not convinced the program should be expanded to include the recycling sector, a position it still holds, according to Steven Finkel, assistant attorney general. He added that the department is open to further consideration of the issue.

Earlier, however, the SCI detailed how organized crime and other bad actors are exploiting loopholes in the licensing law to dump contaminated fill and debris at huge profits, sometimes in environmentally sensitive areas.

SCI officials said the investigation uncovered a scheme in which contaminated fill and construction debris was used by a so-called ‘’dirt broker’’ to shore up a bluff in Old Bridge, abutting Raritan Bay. Old Bridge was left to clean up the mess with a projected cost of up to $400,000 over as many as 30 years.

“Why aren’t these people being prosecuted as criminals?’’ asked Smith.

Finkel declined to respond to the question, saying the office cannot confirm whether there is a criminal investigation.

“This is not our finest hour,’’ Smith said, noting that not only should such bad actors be prosecuted, but also the state should go after civil penalties from them. “The whole point of the A-901 program is supposed to be preventive. It’s supposed to get the stinkers out before they do harm. This program is not working.’’

In another case reported by the SCI, a South Jersey recycling center was taken over by a convicted felon, Bradley Sirkin, who illegally brought in contaminated soil and concrete to a facility purported to be a mulching center.

Earlier this month, Sirkin was indicted in an unrelated but sweeping racketeering conspiracy along with 45 other alleged members of the mob by federal authorities. He never went through the A-901 program.

The bill, held by the committee, but expected to be taken up in September, aims to close that loophole by expanding the list of key people in a company who have to be licensed to include sales representatives, brokers, and consultants. The legislation has been kicking around since the 2011 SCI report, but was never pushed by its sponsor, Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), because he was told by the governor’s office it would not support an expansion of regulatory authority.

The legislation also would consolidate and centralize the licensing program in the attorney general’s office. The state Department of Environmental Protection and the attorney general’s office now carry out the provisions of the law.

The law also would be extended to prevent people barred from the waste industry in other states from crossing over into New Jersey and entering the business here. SCI officials said they had found 30 instances of people barred in New York who had moved into the recycling sector in New Jersey.

One issue yet to be resolved is full funding for the program, which has rarely been accomplished, according to Lee Seglem, acting executive director of the SCI. He suggested the state consider establishing a workable fee structure to finance it.

Smith urged the attorney general’s office work with the SCI to come up with joint recommendations for fixing the program, including its funding.

The bill drew objections from Frank Brill, a lobbyist representing the recycling sector, who said it will damage the industry. “You don’t put a big umbrella on everyone else,’’ he said.