VERNON — U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-5th Dist., returning to a suspected dump site he visited over the summer, renewed his call Monday for state and federal officials to address what the congressman labeled a “massive waste pile” atop the Silver Spruce Drive property of Joseph Wallace.
At one point during his visit, Gottheimer — who was joined by Mayor Harry Shortway and Sussex County Freeholder Herb Yardley — was confronted by Wallace, who directed an angry stream of epithets at the congressman and said cryptically, “you guys better leave.” Wallace ultimately walked away without further incident.
Gottheimer, citing recent independent laboratory tests that showed what he called “alarming” concentrations of lead in groundwater believed to be seeping downhill from Wallace’s property, cast doubt on what the state Department of Environmental Protection described recently as “de minimis” (minimal) and “trace” amounts of construction and demolition material in the soil.
He also reiterated calls for the DEP to conduct core sampling and laboratory testing of the dumped dirt to determine its contents, something the DEP thus far has declined to do.
“Let the head of the DEP come here right where I’m standing now, and explain to me how this fits the definition of de minimis,” said Gottheimer as he pointed to a section of the hill where several chunks of concrete, metal piping, and rebar could be seen in plain view amid what appeared to be dozens of blocks, bricks, and other scattered debris.
Gottheimer, who wrote to the federal Environmental Protection Agency in July, said officials there had told him to deal directly with the DEP, which told him recently that it saw no need for laboratory testing of the dirt and that the issue was one for the township to deal with on its own. Earlier this year, a DEP spokesperson told the New Jersey Herald that the agency had also reviewed analyticals supplied by Wallace and those trucking materials to his site – which backs up to wetlands and is located just a few hundred feet from the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge — and found them all satisfactory.
“We have not seen any of those analyticals, so I don’t know what they’re talking about,” Gottheimer said. “Until we finally get this tested in the proper way, I’m going to keep writing to the governor’s office and the DEP and EPA. I don’t understand why this is so complicated.”
In a letter Friday to the DEP, Gottheimer noted that lead is not normally found naturally in groundwater or surface water but instead usually comes from corrosion of lead pipes or other man-made materials. The letter ended with a request for “more information on the methodology DEP used to determine that the amount of construction waste in the pile is de minimis, particularly if minimal physical testing was conducted.”
Wallace, who is appealing a $75,000 municipal court fine he received in May for violating a 4-year-old stop work order by the Sussex County Soil Conservation District, is currently facing a new stop-work order that bars him from receiving any additional soil or fill material on any portion of his 4.3-acre site until he obtains an approved soil erosion and sediment control plan from the state.
Until recently, township police had been attempting to enforce the order by turning away dump trucks making deliveries to Wallace’s property. However, with a judge having denied the township’s request for an injunction against Wallace — and with Wallace’s attorney, Jeff Patti, having threatened the township and its police department with a lawsuit for exceeding their enforcement powers — it is unclear who is enforcing the order at this point.
For now, according to Patti, Wallace is abiding voluntarily by the order. “He tells me he’s not violating the order,” Patti said.
But on Monday, just as Gottheimer arrived, two dump trucks were seen pulling into Wallace’s property.
Jenny Higgins, who lives on Woodland Hills Drive directly behind Wallace’s property, told the New Jersey Herald late Monday that this is nothing new — that she sees and hears as many as 15 to 20 dump trucks, and sometimes as many as 30, arriving and dumping material on Wallace’s property each day.
Patti, who previously filed a court certification indicating that Wallace was using the material to fill in an area of his property washed out by Superstorm Sandy, has since backed away from that assertion. But when asked Monday what else Wallace was using the material for, he had no answer.
Patti had also previously claimed that Wallace was using his property as a “staging ground” to receive “clean topsoil for my client’s landscaping business,” but admitted over the weekend and again Monday that he did not know the name of Wallace’s landscaping business or if Wallace had a site plan approval from the township for his activities. He said he would try to find out but, after speaking with Wallace earlier Monday, said he still did not know and did not respond back to the Herald by deadline.
Regardless, he said, the statement about Wallace using his property for a landscaping business was merely an “innocuous” statement that some township officials were now taking out of context. He suggested that what Wallace is doing is no different from an accountant or lawyer using a home office to print out bills or legal documents.
In the meantime, Higgins — the Woodland Hills Drive resident — said that with the recent concerns about lead, which she worries could make its way into her well, she has resorted to using bottled water and having her children spend as little time in the shower as possible. She said she even has begun having her 3-year-old child bathe at the home of relatives when possible.
“Heavy metals don’t necessarily have to be consumed — they can be absorbed through the skin just by sitting in the water,” she said.
Eric Gorovoy, a neighboring Silver Spruce Drive property owner who requested the water testing, told the Herald he isn’t only concerned about the contents of the dirt pile on Wallace’s property but also its volume. He said a rainstorm about 10 days ago caused what he described as a “mudslide” from Wallace’s property onto his own that required a full day to be cleared from his driveway, some of whose apparent remains could still be seen Monday.
Patti, meanwhile, has described what is happening to Wallace as “a witch hunt” and said he is prepared to go to court to have the latest stop-work order against him overturned. He also noted that Vernon’s own DPW had been cited by the state recently for housing asphalt millings, demolition debris and street sweepings in a storage yard near the Black Creek — a complaint that was phoned in by Patti himself.
“Josh Gottheimer is not the DEP, and if Congressman Gottheimer was really concerned about doing a proper investigation, he would be asking the township about its own illegal dumping,” Patti said.