ROXBURY - The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection says it had good intentions when it approved a plan to install solar panels on an abandoned landfill in Roxbury.
“If the state was to take this and cap it ourselves, we’re talking many millions of dollars,” DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese tells News 12 New Jersey’s Walt Kane in an exclusive interview. “The goal was let’s close it, let’s get green on it, and let’s do it without costing taxpayers money.”
But as part of the project, the DEP authorized landfill owner Richard Bernardi to truck in more than a million cubic yards of new construction debris. The agency has been on the defensive ever since.
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As News 12 New Jersey has reported in a series of Kane In Your Corner investigations, air quality tests show the project has produced dangerous fumes. In addition, Bernardi was previously convicted of conspiracy to commit bribery, which has some questioning why the DEP did business with him. There are also questions about whether the project was necessary, since a 2005 DEP report concluded the landfill posed no immediate environmental danger.
The DEP is now trying to shut the project down, saying Bernardi’s failure to cover the landfill with fresh soil nightly is to blame for the fumes. Some in Roxbury also blame the DEP, however. Homeowner Anthony Fiore even calls the agency “the number one culprit.”
Ragonese says he understands residents’ concerns but leaving the site alone was not a viable option. “If there was a problem 20 years from now, people would have said ‘why didn’t you DEP, why didn't you, the state of New Jersey, take steps to properly close this landfill?’,” he says.
The DEP is also being criticized by Bernardi. In January, he filed an ethics complaint over the agency’s demand that he place 100 percent of his dumping fees in escrow. Bernardi has refused, saying the agency does not expect that from other landfills. The complaint specifically cites a landfill in Mullica Hill, Gloucester County that is owned by the husband of the DEP’s deputy commissioner. Bernardi calls that a conflict of interest.
The DEP says the deputy commissioner named in the ethics complaint did not marry the other landfill owner until years after that project was approved and says Bernardi is trying to divert attention from the real issue. The agency says Bernardi simply needs to follow the rules he agreed to.