This is a story about garbage and politics, which makes it very much a story about New Jersey, a place long known for trash dumping and questionable politics.
Back a generation or so ago when landfills were known simply as dumps, many were scattered around the state. Over the last 30 years, many were closed for any number of reasons, including one in Roxbury Township, Morris County, known as Fenimore Landfill.
The landfill was – and is – located in a section of town called Mooney Mountain and is accessible by the aptly named Mountain Road.
While operations at the landfill ceased in the early 1980’s, the landfill was not officially closed or capped, according to current environmental regulations.
Some see an old dump.
Some see opportunity.
Very much in the latter category was Richard W. Bernardi Sr., a director and managing member of Strategic Environmental Partners, LLC. Bernardi, who served time in prison for conspiring to bribe a Newark city official more than 20 years ago (he has maintained his innocence) approached the state Department of Environmental Protection with a proposition.
He would buy the landfill, operate it for awhile, close it properly and convert it into a solar power generating farm.
Bernardi clearly must have known something about state environmental policy, as his proposal surfaced in 2010 and 2011 during the early years of the Chris Christie administration. The governor was never known as an environmentalist, but conversely, his administration in its early years was a big proponent of solar energy.
So any talk of developing a solar generating facility must have sounded pretty sweet.
Of course from the get-go, all was not rosy.
From the earliest stages, the DEP had concerns about Bernardi’s financial ability to do what he proposed. That assessment was part of a recent state appeals court opinion. (More about that later).
Notwithstanding those concerns, the state and Bernardi in October, 2011 entered into an administrative consent order.
The essence of the deal was that the landfill would reopen and Bernardi would deposit “tipping fees” from its operation and revenue from solar power generation into an escrow account to allow the DEP to finance landfill remediation. Bernardi agreed to provide the DEP with a signed contract from a solar developer within 60 days and to put a total of $2.3 million in the escrow account in two years.
So, the landfill opened – for the first time in about 30 years.
Neighbors quickly took notice. That section of the township was much more developed in 2011 than it was in the 1970’s and a landfill was not seen as a positive new neighbor. Truck traffic was the first complaint. As the name accurately suggests, Mountain Road is no interstate and neighbors were jarred by large trucks rumbling through. Township officials actually considered building a new access road to the landfill for trucks, but that never happened.
Meanwhile, Bernardi and the state were having their own problems.
State officials said, according to the court opinion, that after signing the agreement, Bernardi disclosed an outstanding debt in excess of $2,5 million. There also was an admission – also after the fact – that there was no contract with a solar power developer.
In all, Bernardi deposited “no more than $250” into the escrow account by July of 2013, according to the court.
By around that time, there were also problems on the ground – stinky ones.
Neighbors began complaining about persistent and annoying “rotten egg” smells emanating from the now-reopened landfill. The magnitude of the complaints varied from person to person. Some just didn’t like the smell, while others said it was more than smell – the fumes were making people sick.
The Roxbury Township Council took a lot of heat over its handling of this matter – some justified, some not.
In fairness, the council had little control over the landfill’s reopening. That was the DEP’s doing,
Normally, local governing bodies have no problem trashing the DEP. But let’s keep in mind that the council, which was all-Republican at the time, probably did not have the appetite to harshly criticize a DEP run by Christie. So it did not.
In hindsight, some officials now say privately that they wish the then-governor, or his DEP commissioner, would have paid more attention to the stench that surrounded Fenimore both literally and figuratively. Christie, after all, was a former Morris freeholder, who does not live that far from the landfill.
Time moves on.
The DEP now says it is satisfied that it was able to eventually take control of the landfill, cap it and install a “system to treat the hydrogen sulfide gases generated by the landfill.” That stopped the smell.
But there’s more, as there should be.
Bernardi was indicted in 2016 on various charges, including theft by deception. Four counts of the six-count indictment were dismissed in state Superior Court, but three of the four were reinstated last month in the aforementioned ruling by the state Appellate Division.
Those charges will run their course, as will various other issues related to the landfill.
But the overriding question persists.
Just why did the DEP allow Bernardi, whose financial ability apparently was questioned by the DEP itself, to reopen a closed landfill?
Was the DEP simply outwitted? Did officials drop the ball? Were there political considerations involved?
Remember this was the DEP of Gov. Christie.
Now we have Gov. Phil Murphy whose DEP can get some kudos from environmentalists – and of course many others – by reviewing what happened between Bernardi and the DEP.
And making public what they find.
After all, there are a lot of closed landfills around that neighbors probably do not want reopened.