Strongly punishing illegal dumping

The Editorial Board for Newsday

Originally published in Newsday

The impunity with which some operators have chosen to spoil Long Island by illegal dumping has long offended the senses of many who live here. These criminals have shown a galling disdain for our environment, and a callous indifference to the damage they could do to our precious aquifer. Most often, the dumping occurs in disadvantaged communities, which already bear a disproportionate burden of societal woes.

So give state lawmakers credit for passing legislation that makes these crimes felonies and stiffens penalties for committing them. Now Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo must sign the bill. And District Attorneys Madeline Singas of Nassau County and Tim Sini of Suffolk, who has been especially vocal about lacking the legal tools to properly mete out justice, must aggressively put it to use. This scourge has raged for too long. 

The eyes of Long Island were opened in 2014 when 40,000 tons of contaminated construction debris were discovered in Roberto Clemente Park, a popular gathering spot for families and youths in Brentwood. Three other Islip Town dumping sites were found later. In 2018, Sini worked with the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Suffolk police to uncover a huge scheme that resulted in 130 counts against 30 people and nine corporations for illegally disposing solid waste at 24 locations, and introduced Long Island to the term “dirt broker.”

Those were just the headlines. Long Islanders have known about, and sometimes stumbled across, smaller illicit dump sites for years, in parks or the pine barrens or off the service road of the Long Island Expressway. It’s deplorable conduct that is almost always about money. Dumpers don’t want to pay the fees associated with legal dumping in a landfill, especially the higher costs for toxic material. When the risk of exposure is low, potential payoffs high, and penalties paltry, some operators consider getting caught just the price of doing business.

The legislation to change that calculation was sponsored by two Long Islanders who chair their respective environmental conservation committees — Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) and Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket). It builds on a special grand jury report on illegal dumping issued by Sini, in whose county most of the illegal activity occurs. The bill creates felonies in the environmental code and increases penalties for the illegal dumping of construction and demolition debris and hazardous and acutely hazardous waste, and adds a new felony in the penal code for “schemes to defraud” that involve disposing solid waste that causes property damage greater than $1,000. It’s a strong package.

It also calls for tracking documents for construction and demolition debris trucked out of New York City, the source of most illegally dumped material. That’s good, but electronic tracking from construction sites to dumping grounds would be far better and should be pursued.

As a matter of environmental purity and environmental justice, illegal dumping must end. This legislation should be signed into law, to help law enforcement make these operators pay for their dirty deeds.

— The editorial board