Lawmakers reach deal on law to prosecute illegal dumping

Yancey Roy for Newsday

Originally published in Newsday

ALBANY — State legislators have reached a deal to designate as felonies illegally dumping construction debris or participating in a dumping scheme, a move that was sparked by the massive disposal of contaminated material that closed a Brentwood park for more than three years.

The State Senate and Assembly formally introduced a bill late Monday that creates four new felonies under state law. Officials said the houses plan to approve the bill this week.

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.

 “The grand jury report showed dumping going on at an epidemic level … District attorneys said we want to go after dumpers and aren’t able to do so,” said Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), the Senate sponsor of the legislation.

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 law was weak and the expectation of enforcement also was weak. This changes that,” Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), the Assembly bill sponsor, said.

“The risk was low and the profits were so attractive that some bad actors were willing to run the risk and call it the price of doing business,” Englebright continued. “As a result, Long Island was a target” for dumping.

In 2014, officials discovered 40,000 tons of contaminated material dumped at 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 convened a special grand jury to study the issue of illegal dumping. Its subsequent 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.

The ringleader, Anthony Grazio, 54, of Smithtown, pleaded guilty in a plea deal to serve 2 to 4 years in prison and pay $500,000 restitution.

Legislators said the grand jury report “set in motion” efforts to change state law.

A Newsday investigation found some of the same companies and individuals playing roles both in the Clemente Park scandal and Operation Pay Dirt. It also outlined how a New York City building boom led to widespread illegal 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 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 newspaper's 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 Clemente — highlighting profit as a factor for the dumping. 

The state increased environmental regulations on dumping last year. But legislators said that wasn’t enough; tougher criminal penalties were needed, too.

“We need to have something in penal law that fully reflects the gravity of events,” Kaminsky said.

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.