Cuomo signs law, sparked by LI case, making illegal dumping a felony

Yancey Roy for Newsday

Originally published in Newsday

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a law Tuesday to designate as felonies illegally dumping of construction debris or participating in a dumping scheme, a move that was sparked by a disposal scandal that closed a Brentwood park for more than three years.

"Illegal dumping is a significant problem and too often its costs are unjustly passed on to the community," Cuomo said in a statement. "Not only does this legislation strengthen criminal penalties to ensure sanctions do not simply become another cost of doing business, but (also) it further discourages large-scale illegal dumping by holding developers and waste haulers accountable for creating the problem in the first place."

The legislation was sparked by the discovery of more than 40,000 tons of contaminated material at Roberto Clemente Park in Brentwood, the indictment of nearly 40 individuals and a special grand jury report that concluded existing state laws weren’t sufficient to deal with the illegal dumping of hazardous materials.

In the past, those caught dumping materials often were charged with a low-level offense, such as criminal mischief, and assessed a relatively small fine, legislators said.

The old law "did little to deter bad actors," said State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), the Senate sponsor of the legislation.

"For too long, Long Island … has been a dumping ground of hazardous waste from New York’s construction industry. This bill will finally give prosecutors the tools they need to go after these very serious offenses," Kaminsky said Tuesday.

The Assembly sponsor, Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), said too often toxic wastes from illegal dumping would "end up in our water supply."

Under the bill, "scheming to defraud" to illegally dispose of "solid waste" would be a felony carrying up to a 4-year prison sentence.

Other provisions specifically make illegal the dumping of construction debris, hazardous substances and "acutely hazardous" materials, with penalties varying according to the amount found.

The legislation was sparked by a scandal in Brentwood and other investigations that followed.

In 2014, officials discovered 40,000 tons of contaminated material dumped at Roberto Clemente Park. A criminal investigation led to the convictions of five men, including two former town parks employees.

Four years later, Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini subsequently convened a special grand jury to study the issue of illegal dumping.

Its report found there were no laws specifically to target the illegal acceptance, disposal or possession of construction and demolition material, hazardous substances and acutely hazardous (as defined by state environmental law) substances.

The grand jury’s findings were born out of "Operation Pay Dirt," a lengthy investigation by Sini’s office and the state Department of Environmental Conservation into illegal dumping on Long Island. It led to the indictment of 30 individuals and nine corporations for disposing contaminated waste at 24 sites on the Island. Sini previously said all have pleaded guilty.

Sini on Tuesday said state lawmakers "took immediate action" on the grand jury's recommendations.

"We will not stand to have our communities and our parks treated as dumping grounds, and this critical legislation provides prosecutors with the tools we need to hold those polluters accountable," the prosecutor said.

A Newsday investigation found some of the same companies and individuals playing roles both in the Roberto Clemente Park scandal and Operation Pay Dirt. It also outlined how a New York City building boom led to widespread dumping in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

For example, 13 construction sites — all but one from the city — generated the 40,000 tons of contaminated material at Roberto Clemente Park. Some of the material contained lead, pesticides, asbestos, diesel fuel and other hazardous substances in levels exceeding state limits, officials said at the time. The Newsday investigation also showed disposal costs for legally getting rid of construction and demolition debris were more than twice what haulers were paid to bring the material to Roberto Clemente Park — highlighting profit as a factor for the dumping.