Tackling a mountain of dumped waste in Vernon woodlands

Officials in Vernon Township and Trenton, who have waged a long battle with the owner of a polluted tract in this leafy Sussex County community, are now turning to the second front in the war — how to get rid of the towering pile of debris and keep its toxic compounds from contaminating a watershed.

Officials say tests have shown that the material within the 70-foot mountain of construction debris dumped at 3 Silver Spruce Drive contains contaminants like lead and a class of chemicals that are found in such compounds as creosote.

The owner of the site, Joseph Wallace, spent nearly a decade operating a dumping business on his residential property, and trucks would continuously bring construction debris, including timber, concrete, rebar, toilets and sewage pipes to the site.

“These contaminants that are in this mountain of debris are leaching through this pile and into our water aquifers and wells,” said Eric Gorovoy, who lives just across the street from the site.

“It’s feeding into the aquifer which feeds all of these towns, all of Vernon,” said resident Peg Distasi. “So you could be in Highland Lakes and be drawing this water.”

Residents started complaining years ago — to the town, county and state. Last year, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection sued Wallace, in a complaint that detailed five years of unfruitful interactions with Wallace, culminating with his demand that state officials obtain a search warrant to gain access to the site. Courts determined that Wallace did not actually possess the appropriate permits for operating a business on his private land.

Municipal officials also took action, culminating with a ruling last October by James D. Bride, the judge in the Long Hill Municipal Court, that Wallace had repeatedly violated municipal ordinances and “ignored all reasonable efforts to stop his activities” and “shown contempt” for township officials. Bridge also imposed a sentence of 90 days in the county jail — to be reduced, but not altogether suspended, if all dumping was halted.

“We had 89 violations summonses and he was found guilty on, I believe, 76 of them,” said Allison Larocca, Vernon’s zoning officer, who said the offenses included violating a stop-work order, dumping without a township permit and running an unauthorized business in a residential zone.

“The illegal dumping has finally stopped, it has finally stopped,” said Mayor Howard Burrell. “And pursuant to the court’s order, Mr. Wallace’s assets have been frozen.”

But officials acknowledge the hardest part remains.

“The waste mountain is still here, it’s still high,” said U.S. Representative Josh Gottheimer. “But how do we get rid of it now? The key is to make sure that our families are safe and our children are safe.”

Officials say they will look at all funding sources, from Wallace’s assets, to state and federal funds for the cleanup. Wallace’s court case could determine who takes possession of the property itself. Sorting it all out is a process that can takes years.

Those who have fought the battle take some comfort, though, in the state’s passage last year of the so-called Dirty Dirt bill, which extends the state’s well-regarded system of background checks for those in the garbage industry to a broader range of persons involved in solid waste, such as salespersons, consultants and brokers. The bill also requires those engaged in soil- and fill-recycling services to register with the state.

“That’ll make this kind of thing near impossible and put some real teeth in the law to make sure that this never happens to another community again,” said Assemblyman Hal Wirths, the Republican whose district includes Vernon.

Others, however, believe the law should be even tougher.

“Make it a criminal act,” said former Mayor Harry Shortway, now president of the township council. “That would also allow our police officers to make stops of the trucks and also have them for conspiracy when they’re violating work stop orders like this, dumping on our pristine land here.”

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