Measure to Keep ‘Dirt Brokers’ Out of Recycling Industry Moves Up, Slowly

Fears that organized crime could infiltrate recycling sector prompt progress on tough licensing law that would include some background checks

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An eight-year struggle to close loopholes to keep bad actors out of the recycling sector is moving closer to winning legislative approval.

The legislation (S-1683), spurred by a 2011 report by the State Commission of Investigation into illegal dumping of toxic-tainted soil and debris, cleared the Senate Environment and Energy Committee last week.

Long debated, the latest version of the bill won backing from the SCI, the attorney general’s office, state Department of Environmental Protection, and recycling sector, all of whom had expressed some reservations about the legislation in the past.

Keeping recycling sector clean

Those concerns mostly revolved around expanding the scope of a tough licensing law for the solid- and hazardous-waste industry to segments of the recycling sector. The original SCI report — amplified by follow-up studies — documented schemes in which contaminated fill and construction debris were dumped as clean fill.

“In recent years, the same type of mob figures who once infiltrated the garbage industry are now exploiting the ever-expanding recycling industry,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith, the chairman of the committee and a sponsor of the bill.

“The illicit disposal of contaminated materials under the façade of recycled materials creates a real threat to public safety and the health of the environment,’’ he added. “It’s an environmental threat that requires a law enforcement response.’’

The changes to the bill limit the scope of facilities required to perform background checks under the licensing law, by exempting recyclable materials such as metal, glass, paper, and plastic containers — as well as construction debris shipped to state-approved facilities.

Registering with the state

But it would require any business engaged in providing soil- and fill-recycling services to register with the state DEP and ultimately obtain a recycling license from the attorney general’s office. It also would extend background checks to a broader range of people involved in the sector, including salespeople, consultants, and brokers.

“We think we now have a pretty good bill,’’ said Smith (D-Middlesex), whose committee had previously held three other hearings on other versions of the measure.

“This is an important piece of legislation,’’ agreed Lee Seglem, executive director of the SCI. “The commission is alarmed that these very serious problems have persisted.’’

The SCI first detailed problems in the industry in a report that uncovered contaminated fill and construction debris were 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 as much as $400,000.

On Thursday, Vernon Township Mayor Harry Shortway urged the committee to amend the bill to deal with a problem in that community, where neighbors have sought unsuccessfully to end the dumping of truckloads of dirt and debris on a residential property. The township has fined the owner more than $75,000, but has been unable to stop the unauthorized dumping.

The legislation now heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.