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Landfill find at Roberto Clemente Park sparks more cleanup plans

Aerial view of Brentwood's Roberto Clemente Park, formerly

Aerial view of Brentwood's Roberto Clemente Park, formerly known as Timberline Park, Aug. 5, 2014. Photo Credit: Aerial view of Brentwood’s Roberto Clemente Park, formerly known as Timberline Park, Aug. 5, 2014.

State environmental officials have told the Town of Islip to cover the soccer field at Roberto Clemente Park with clean soil and create a plan to monitor for air and water pollution after an old landfill was discovered under the field during the cleanup of contaminated fill last year.

The landfill was unearthed after the removal of tens of thousands of tons of contaminated fill from the soccer field and a recharge basin at the Brentwood park, which Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said was part of a wider dumping scheme.

Testing performed in 2014 by a private environmental consulting firm hired by Spota’s office found pesticides, hydrocarbons and metals in the fill.

That firm, Enviroscience Consultants of Ronkonkoma, said the results would not have been affected by what was in the old landfill because of the way the samples were collected. But the retired head of the Suffolk County district attorney’s environmental-crimes unit said the discovery of the materials could pose difficulties for the prosecution.

The town sought guidance from the state Department of Environmental Conservation in August, after the debris was uncovered when the town’s contractor scraped the soccer field clear of the contaminated fill.

Wantagh-based Gramercy Group “pointed out some differences in the material in certain areas of the soccer field from what had been consistently observed throughout the rest of the field,” town officials wrote in an Aug. 3 letter to the DEC’s regional engineer, Ajay Shah.

Those materials included “general debris, charred materials and wood, pieces of metal piping, glass bottles, brittle plastic and some textiles,” the letter said.

Glenn Neuschwender, president and chief executive of Enviroscience, which also was hired by the town to oversee the cleanup at the park, said in an interview last month that the landfill material was found in the southeast portion of the soccer field, covering about 20 percent of the field.

Neuschwender said the testing his firm did for Spota’s office after the dumping was discovered likely would not have picked up any potential contaminants from the landfill, since the soil borings only were drilled to the level of topsoil below the fill — not deeper into where the landfill material was.

“There were three borings that might have been part of where the [waste] is,” he said of the original testing.

But, Neuschwender said, the landfill under the soccer field had been covered by 1 1⁄2 to 2 feet of sand, in addition to the layer of topsoil.

“When we sampled, we went through 3 feet of contaminated fill, then we hit what we saw to be a topsoil layer, then the sand,” he said. “It was pretty easy to see what the boundary was between what was placed there and what might be below it.”

Thomas Datre Jr., his father Thomas Datre Sr., Christopher Grabe of Islandia Recycling, Ronald Cianciulli of Atlas Asphalt, along with town officials Joseph Montuori Jr. and Brett Robinson and four Datre family companies were indicted in December 2014 in connection with the dumping scheme. Prosecutors contend that the park, a 1-acre vacant lot in Central Islip, a six-home development for veterans in Islandia and a state-protected wetlands area in Deer Park all received contaminated fill. Some of the charges, including felonies, were based on the contaminants found in the fill.

All the defendants have pleaded not guilty, and jury selection in the trial is scheduled to begin next month.

Evidence in doubt?

An attorney for Thomas Datre Jr. — whom prosecutors have called the “mastermind” of the scheme, and who faces 29 counts in the indictment — and three Datre companies argued the old landfill materials call into question the results of the district attorney’s testing.

“The collection of so-called evidence in this case was utterly incompetent,” said the attorney, Kevin Kearon of Garden City. There was “no capacity to understand which dirt they were pulling up. It might have been fresh dirt we deposited or ancient soil as part of the long history of it being a dump.”

Steven Drielak, former commanding officer of the Suffolk County district attorney’s environmental-crimes unit, said the discovery of the landfill might indeed throw the evidence into doubt.

“What they now have to prove is where that hazardous substance came from beyond a reasonable doubt,” Drielak said. “Now we have a situation where that hazardous substance may have come from another source: the municipal solid waste.”

Spota’s spokesman, Robert Clifford, said: “We are aware of the issue and prepared to address it at trial.”

In a Nov. 6 letter to the town, Shah said, after consulting with the county and state health departments, that the DEC would require the town to create an additional plan to address the landfill waste, and outlined the steps the town must take.

Those steps include placing 2 1/2 feet of clean soil and a cover of vegetation over the soccer field and creating a plan to monitor groundwater and monitor for any methane gas emissions from the old landfill.

The DEC’s letter also says the town must restrict the area “from future excavation and/or construction” without DEC notification.

Once the town develops the new plan, it must submit it to the DEC for approval.

Islip Town spokeswoman Caroline Smith said in a statement last week that the town will be meeting with Enviroscience on the plan on Jan. 20, then will submit it to the DEC within 30 days.

The town completed its report on the overall cleanup at the park to the DEC in September, and sampling done after the roughly 39,000 tons of debris was trucked out of the park showed little to no soil contamination remained.

Groundwater testing by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services last year at and around the park at the behest of the Suffolk County Legislature found “unusual and unexpected” levels of pesticides, but the department could not determine the source of the contamination.

Grace Kelly-McGovern, spokeswoman for the health department, said in a statement last week that there are no imminent health effects posed by the old landfill materials because the park is closed, and added the town will develop a plan to ensure that “potential future exposure and human health impacts are prevented.”

Once the DEC has approved the town’s plans for the park and the soccer field, the town will move forward with rebuilding and reopening the park, Smith said.

That includes moving the soccer field to a new location in the park, because the town would be restricted from building a drainage system for the field at the current location, she said.

A look at park’s history

Smith said the town began investigating the history of the park after the recent dumping.

The site — initially made up of five parcels — was mined for sand in the early 1940s, with the maximum extent of mining appearing to occur around 1947, Smith said.

While historic aerial photographs showed excavation and filling at the site over decades, the town could not find formal records indicating the town operated the site as a landfill, she said. The town acquired the parcels between 1962 and 1976, she said, with development of the park beginning after 1978.

Smith said some of the historic photos showed that some areas, particularly where the recharge basin and the softball fields are, did not appear to have been filled in.

“The town was not aware of what kind of fill or other material was used to fill the excavation at the soccer field area until test pits were dug,” Smith wrote in a statement.

The extent of the landfill materials under the park remains unclear.

But a town document shows the roughly 30-acre site was known as the “Noble Street landfill” years before Roberto Clemente Park was a park.

The site was used by the town’s highway department to dump debris collected during cleanups, according to the town’s Solid Waste Management Plan, which covered the years 1982 to 2005.

The landfill, named after a roadway to the east of the property, also was used by residents as a local dump.

Dumping there stopped in the late 1960s, according to the document, but not before an unknown quantity of debris and other items was deposited at the property, with periodic fires set to reduce the volume.

In 1981, the town opened what was then called Timberline Park on top of the landfill.

“A soccer field was located over the largest portion of the buried material,” according to the document, which includes a map indicating the site of the current soccer field.

Two baseball diamonds were built over an excavated and partially filled pit, the document continues. That area was not affected by the recent dumping.

Methane testing had been done at the park in previous years, according to the document, but the testing found no methane problems at the site.

“What was once an undesirable unattractive land use in the middle of a residential neighborhood has been converted to an attractive asset,” the document says. “Timberline Park represents the best that can be done with an old landfill.”

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