CAMDEN — Leonard Moore, a Vietnam veteran who's lived in Bergen Square for three and a half years, eyed the giant pile that's blighted his neighborhood for years, a three-story illegal dumping ground full of toxic dirt.
"That shouldn't have ever gotten that big," he said. "That thing's a mountain. Just because it's 7th and Chestnut doesn't mean it's Vietnam."
That idea — that Camden is not a war zone, that it's a city where people live and work, where children walk to school and elders worship in church, that its residents deserve the same basic dignity that everyone in the suburbs does — was repeated again and again Monday as city and state officials gathered to start the process of clearing the massive dirt pile.
The pile was illegally dumped under cover of night, Moore said, but he'd taken photos of trucks going onto the property. Drivers would ask him why, and he told them: He wanted to know who's been doing it, dropping mounds of dirt that end up spilling mud onto the streets and into gutters and yards, its toxic dust blowing through streets already beset with industrial pollution.
"This mound has been an incredible nuisance for everybody," said Mayor Vic Carstarphen, who grew up a couple of blocks away. "We are going to correct this injustice that's been upon the residents of this community."
Carstarphen said he'd met with residents a year ago to begin trying to hold the dumpers accountable, but residents wanted action, too, impatient if rightfully so, to get the pile cleared without waiting years for litigation to wind through the courts. State, county and city officials knew they couldn't wait to act, either. The dumpsite's owners are elusive, with the City of Camden and state Department of Environmental Protection involved in a likely years-long process to hold them accountable cleanup and remediation.
"The bottom line is, Camden is not a dumping ground," Carstarphen said, repeating it for emphasis. "This situation has been and simply is unacceptable, I don't care where you live, this should not be tolerated in any community."
The owners of the site "failed the community, our youth, our churches, our residents. They haven't stood up and fixed an issue that they created. They failed our city by not taking corrective action."
Camden's City Council OK'd the use of $5 million in American Rescue Act funds — out of a total of $62 million in federal relief funds the city received — in the spring. A legal ad soliciting bids for the removal said the project would include include soil erosion and sediment control, removal and disposal of the soil, fence and gate installation, and site restoration. The site has nearly 1,900 tons of what the Camden Redevelopment Agency, which owns the lot, called "non-hazardous contaminated screened material related to illegal dumping." The dirt measures about 3,245 cubic feet and ranges in height from 10 to 22 feet.
On Monday, Carstarphen offered a tentative timeline for the work, one contingent on what type of materials environmental consultants from West Chester, Pennsylvania-based Montrose Environmental find once they examine the site and test the soil for contaminants. He asked residents for more patience, vowing "it's going to get done."
Starting Monday until about November, the licensed site remediation professionals (LSRPs) will collect soil samples, survey the site and do testing. Machinery and heavy equipment would be brought in to do the work.
In October, the Camden Redevelopment Agency, which owns some of the parcels where the illegal dumping took place, will award a contract for removal on city-owned parcels.
A community meeting will be held in December to update neighborhood residents about the project's progress.
By June 2023, residents could expect to see soil being removed from city-owned parcels, and by the summer of 2023, soil will likely be removed from the privately-owned parcels, the largest pile.
New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette called the pile and illegal dumping "a mark of indignity left upon our communities that send this unacceptable message that somehow, cities like Camden are less deserving of natural beauty and protection. To that, we say, No."
In 2021, a group of environmental activists and city residents began to call attention the pile, with Roy Jones, a resident and activist, calling the pile a manifestation of the environmental racism and illegal dumping that's plagued Camden for decades. The state filed suit against the alleged dumpers in May 2021.
In a civil complaint, the New Jersey Attorney General's Office said that the defendants are in "decades-long noncompliance with environmental laws and regulations which continue to expose the Camden community to pollution and other environmental and public health hazards." The complaint says the DEP began inspecting the site as far back as 2002 and has found "numerous, repeated violations," and found the presence of of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and metals, known carcinogens that can cause liver, kidney and other cancers.
View from above:Camden Community Partnership's aerial view of the dirt pile
The defendants — S. Yaffa & Sons Inc.; William Yocco; Charles Yaffa; Weyhill Realty Holdings Inc.; XYZ Corporations and several "John and/or Jane Does" — "have unlawfully imported and stockpiled solid waste on their Camden property," the suit alleges, "including contaminated fill material, construction and demolition debris, and waste tires."
Licensed site remediation professionals will oversee the project, Carstarphen and city business administrator Tim Cunningham said.
And while the city will use federal funds for the cleanup, Cunningham was quick to point out that didn't mean the alleged dumpers would not be held accountable.
"The city has been working with the Office of the Attorney General and in particular its Division of Law to seek specific performance and compel action by the responsible party," Cunningham said.
Kandyce Perry, the state's first director of environmental justice, noted how Black and brown communities, and poor communities, are the ones disproportionately impacted by pollution, illegal dumping and other environmental blights.
She acknowledged residents' and activists' role in bringing attention to the problem, and their continued efforts to make sure something is done about it.
"It is the people that continue to push government forward and alert us to problems in need of solutions," she said, thanking city residents for their continued activism.
"I leave you with just one ask: Continue to speak up and point out the environmental injustices that you see."
Phaedra Trethan has been a reporter and editor in South Jersey since 2007 and has covered Camden and surrounding areas since 2015, concentrating on issues relating to quality of life and social justice for the Courier-Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal. She's called South Jersey home since 1971. Contact her with feedback, news tips or questions at email@example.com, on Twitter @By_Phaedra, or by phone at 856.486-2417.
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This article originally appeared on Cherry Hill Courier-Post: Camden NJ illegal dirt pile on Chestnut Street to be removed