Camden Residents Protest Illegal Waste Dumped in Their Neighborhood
Camden residents say a large pile of dirt is plaguing their block with mud, runoff and dust. The state has cited the property owner.
Carlton Soudan said when his grandmother passed at the age of 103, she still enjoyed the backyard of her home. There were honeysuckle vines and trees, and Bergen Square was once a quiet neighborhood of rowhouses.
No one can go into the backyard at 620 Chestnut now, at least not without a sturdy pair of boots and a strong sense of resolve: It’s almost completely overcome by mud and dirt from a massive pile that’s quickly encroaching on the tiny home with the red-and-white metal awnings.
Soudan, who owns the house that’s been in his family since the 1940s, lives nearby but the house is occupied by elderly family members, he said. He worries about their health and safety, and that of the entire neighborhood.
Camden officials enlist residents to help clean up their city
Roy Jones, an environmental activist who lives in nearby Whitman Park, called the presence of the pile — one that’s easily five stories high and takes up about half a city block — a manifestation of the environmental racism and illegal dumping that’s plagued Camden for decades.
A lawsuit filed by the state last month alleges the pile contains carcinogenic material and is the scene of repeated violations of environmental regulations.
“You will not find anything like this in any other towns in Camden County,” said Jones. “You will not find this in any other county in South Jersey. It’s unique to Camden and it’s a tragedy what’s going on in the City of Camden.”
Jones, who leads the National Institute for Healthy Human Space, and other activists gathered at the site Friday morning to draw public attention to the pile.
Among their demands: That the dirt be immediately removed; that the entire site be cleaned; and that residents can be tested for any health problems caused by possible toxins.
“On a dry day, you can breathe in toxins from the air,” Jones said. “On a rainy day it affects our drains in the City of Camden and our storm drains and this can affect the groundwater of the City of Camden.”
Indeed, during Friday’s heavy morning rains, dirt flowed out from the site, into gutters, down storm drains, into driveways and into Soudan’s backyard and a narrow alley next to the home.
The mud was so thick, boots sunk into it; in his backyard, a paint stirrer he placed showed it was at least 3 or 4 inches deep and out in the street, deposits were also inches deep.
Shaneka Boucher, a Camden City Council member who represents Bergen Square, and committee member Sheila Roberts both said the city is aware of the pile. Prior city administrations, state lawmakers and others have all tried to address the problem, with little success, but she and Roberts both said the new administration and Mayor Vic Carstarphen have made remediation and holding the property owners accountable “high priorities.”
“The situation is unbearable,” said Roberts, “and the heat wave has made it worse.”
An informational meeting with residents will take place Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Union American Methodist Episcopal Church nearby, she added.
In a civil complaint filed in state court last month, the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office said that the owners of the property where the pile is 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 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.”
The alleged illegal dumping and other actions at the site, the state said in the complaint, have continued “despite … repeated administrative efforts including numerous Notices of Violation and a Final Agency Order to compel compliance.”
The Attorney General’s Office noted that Camden “has a significant low-income and minority population.”
“Historically, across New Jersey, such communities have been disproportionately exposed to high-polluting facilities and to the resultant threats of high levels of air, water and soil pollution and accompanying potential for increased public health impacts,” it added.
The Attorney General’s complaint says the DEP began inspecting the site in 2002 and since then has found “numerous, repeated violations.” It also notes the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and metals, known carcinogens that can cause liver, kidney and other cancers.
Jones and Soudan said the state “shut down” the site recently, but the soil remains and keeps encroaching on surrounding homes, streets and businesses. As recently as Feb. 4, the DEP inspected the site and observed “continued commingling of construction and demolition debris with soils.
A call to the Attorney General’s Office was not immediately returned Friday.
Asked a day earlier about the pile and residents’ concerns, city and county officials both said they’ve long worked to bring the site owners into compliance with no results, and the state is planning additional announcements next week.
“We know it’s been more than just a nuisance to the neighborhood,” said city spokesman Vince Basara. “It needs to be addressed immediately and we’re working with the county and state to hold them accountable. We know of the direct impact to residents, and this administration will not tolerate this kind of illegal dumping.”
“It’s outrageous and appalling to think that a company, based in Cherry Hill, would be so soulless in their actions that it could even think of storing five stories of soil next to a residential property and so close to other homes,” said Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen.
“Weyhill Realty Holdings has created unacceptable conditions for the residents of Camden,” said Keashen. He said the county’s health department is working closely with the city and state “to ensure that the site is properly cleaned and remediated to make the neighborhood whole again.”
“Furthermore, our objective, outside of remediation, is to hold the property owner accountable for their actions in building a makeshift landfill in our city and county,” Keashen said.
No phone number could immediately be found for Weyhill; the company’s website has apparently been taken down.
For Soudan, he’s worried not only about his house, one whose back walls and windows are darkened by dirt, brick, mud and stone fragments. He’s worried about his neighbors.
This part of Camden is bounded by heavy industry and an interstate highway. It’s beset with people in addiction and the dealers who cater to them. On Friday morning, Camden County Police were a block away, crime tape blocking the intersection where gunfire had killed one man and wounded another.
“I worry about my whole community,” he said Friday morning. “People breathe this. When it’s not raining, the dust blows everywhere. People don’t have air here so they leave their windows open and all the dust goes in their houses.”