Long Island state lawmakers introduced sweeping legislation Wednesday they said would make it easier to prosecute and punish individuals suspected of illegally dumping toxic materials and better protect the region’s sole-source aquifer.
The bipartisan legislation would create a host of new laws to target the illegal disposal, possession and acceptance of solid waste and hazardous materials while addressing gaps in existing statutes the lawmakers said failed to protect the public and environment.
Long Island, and particularly low-income Suffolk communities, have been ground zero for illegal dumping in recent years, largely fueled by its proximity to New York City’s booming construction industry, according to Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini.
“With our proximity to the city, Suffolk County all too often has become a dumping ground for construction and demolition projects in the city,” Sini said at a news conference in Hauppauge with other Long Island state and local leaders. “It is expensive to properly dispose of solid waste, particularly when it includes hazardous or acutely hazardous materials … And so bad actors, in order to line their pockets with money, will break the law.”
The legislation stems from a 55-page report unsealed last week by a special Suffolk grand jury empaneled in July 2018 to investigate illegal dumping and other environmental crimes on Long Island.
The grand jury’s findings were born out of “Operation Pay Dirt.” The joint investigation by Sini’s office and the state Department of Environmental Conservation led to a 130-count indictment — the largest bust in the state’s history for the illegal dumping of construction and demolition debris. Prosecutors charged nine corporations and 30 individuals with illegally disposing of contaminated waste at 24 sites in Nassau and Suffolk. Every defendant charged in the case, Sini said, has since pleaded guilty.
“This is an issue that strikes at what being a Long Islander is all about,” said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. “Our environment is why we live here. It’s part of who we are.”
The grand jury report suggested a number of legislative and regulatory changes — many of which were included in the bill by State Senate and Assembly lawmakers.
The proposed legislation would create a host of new felony and misdemeanor environmental waste crimes. Lawmakers, prosecutors and environmental advocates said there are few laws on the books to specifically address damage to Long Island’s groundwater or the dumping of hazardous substances.
For example, the new charge of aggravated criminal disposal of solid waste and hazardous substances would be a Class B felony and punishable by 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison with a minimum of 1 to 3 years behind bars.
Previously, prosecutors were left to charge illegal-dumping suspects with a top charge of second-degree criminal mischief — a class D felony often used to charge those writing graffiti. As a result, Sini said, companies or “dirt brokers” were allowed to pay a fine but generally avoid lengthy prison time.
“Illegal polluters may not steal our money but they do rob us of our health,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a Farmingdale-based advocacy group. “And that’s a crime and needs to be treated as such.”
The legislation includes a conspiracy component, allowing prosecutors to charge suspects with scheming to defraud, and targets the lucrative business of mining for sand. Criminal penalties would be heightened when the illegally dumped materials cause the aquifer to become contaminated.
Existing laws would be strengthened to require “cradle-to-grave” documentation by a contractor or company of solid waste as well as construction and demolition material in an electronic database that investigators could track via a smartphone application. Asset forfeiture funds could be distributed to the victims of environmental crimes.
State lawmakers contend that illegal dumping has historically affected low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
In Suffolk, illegal dump sites containing lead, pesticides, asbestos, diesel fuel and other hazardous substances have been discovered in Roberto Clemente Park in Brentwood and next to community soccer fields near Brentwood North Middle School.
“The communities that are being impacted by this are underserved communities,” said State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), the bill’s lead sponsor. “People are not going to fancy areas in Suffolk County and dumping in their parks and on their lawns.”
Lawmakers from both parties across Nassau and Suffolk urged passage of the bill when the Senate and Assembly return to session in January.
“We already have bipartisan support,” said Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore), the ranking minority member on the Environmental Conservation Committee. “This bill should come to the floor soon in the new session and pass unanimously.”
By Robert Brodsky