Hazardous household waste collected from four Long Island towns ended up among refuse found at a Georgia warehouse that stored the material so poorly, the facility posed an "immediate threat to life and health," Georgia state officials said.
Newsday has learned that the towns — Shelter Island, Smithtown, Southampton and Southold — are working to settle with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to limit their financial responsibility in the case against waste carter Care Environmental Corp., of Hackettstown, New Jersey.
More than 40 East Coast municipalities from Connecticut to Florida that contracted with the company were named as potential responsible parties, according to the Georgia EPD, the state’s environmental regulator.
Long Island towns hire vendors like Care to dispose of oil-based paints, pesticides, gasoline and other materials that cannot safely be disposed of in traditional landfills. Municipalities often call them S.T.O.P. [Stop Throwing Out Pollutants] programs.
The allegations against the company stem from a warehouse in Valdosta, Georgia, where material was stored before being taken to a processing facility. Georgia officials said they spent years seeking judicial and administrative actions to force Care to bring the site into compliance before taking emergency action, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in October 2019. Care and the owner of the property who leased out the warehouse, N.L. Bassford Jr., are working with Georgia EPD to bring the property into compliance with the state’s environmental law.
What to know
Hazardous household waste from four Long Island towns was found poorly stored at a warehouse in Georgia, according to state officials there.
Georgia’s investigation is centered around waste carter Care Environmental Corp. of Hackettstown, New Jersey.
The LI towns, Shelter Island, Smithtown, Southampton and Southold, are working to settle with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to limit their financial responsibility in the case against Care Environmental.
"Despite EPD’s repeated efforts, in the fall of 2019 the situation at the facility had deteriorated to the point of posing an immediate threat to human health and to the environment," Jason Metzger, Georgia EPD response and remediate program manager, wrote in an email to Newsday. "EPD is now working with the property owner and other responsible parties to evaluate any potential releases of hazardous constituents to the environment and to ensure the site is cleaned up in accordance with the law."
At the time of the emergency action, the company was experiencing "a cash flow problem attributable primarily to the long payment lag associated with many local government entities" and was trying to gather the resources needed to pay for waste disposal at the site, said attorney Richard Welch of Roseland, New Jersey, who is representing Care Environmental and its president, Frank McKenna.
Records show the company filed for bankruptcy in New Jersey in 2013.
"It is devastating to Care that what began as an apparently short-term cash crunch has ballooned into a situation that threatens to expose some of its customers to financial liability," Welch wrote in an email to Newsday. "These events are the result of financial difficulties from which the company is fighting to recover, not from a lack of professional skill and experience, or from a disregard of its responsibilities."
Southold and Smithtown have tentatively agreed to pay the Georgia EPD $20,000, with Southampton agreeing to pay $15,000. Shelter Island Town attorney Bob DeStefano said the town does not comment on ongoing settlement litigation. Representatives of Southampton, Southold and Smithtown said those municipalities would seek to recoup costs from the contractor. All four towns said they no longer use the vendor.
Long Island town officials told Newsday that they selected Care Environmental because it was the lowest responsible bidder on the contracts and had no reason to believe the items were not being disposed of properly.
"We were very surprised to get the letter from Georgia," said Southold Town Attorney Bill Duffy. "Your contract just says they are going to take care of it. It doesn’t necessarily say where [it’s going to go]."
Southold last paid Care Environmental $19,619 for an event in August 2020, according to town records.
Spills, leaks and noncompliance
The Georgia EPD was able to connect the waste to local municipalities through records and labels on containers at the facility.
Smithtown has hosted S.T.O.P. events since 2009, and on April 24 gathered and disposed of 39 tons of waste in its largest collection to date, said town solid waste coordinator Mike Englemann.
The town last used Care in October 2020, when it learned of the Georgia allegations.
"By and large they [the materials] typically just accumulated in people's homes until there was an opportunity for a program like this where people could feel like they were doing the environmentally responsible thing," Englemann said. "Based on the age of some of these containers, some of them appear to date back to the ’70s or ’80s."
Care Environmental first received its Georgia solid waste permit in 2006, allowing it to collect, process and store household hazardous waste. The Georgia EPD issued several violations from 2007 and leading up to the October 2019 action, according to a memo recommending the property be listed on the state Hazardous Site Inventory.
Georgia EPD staff had routinely witnessed spills and leaks, improperly stored materials and signs of distressed vegetation indicating release of materials, according to the memo. During an Oct. 2, 2019, enforcement action, officials saw drums labeled as toxic, corrosive and/or flammable that were leaking or unsecured.
The staff "noted observing a haze in the warehouse and determined that conditions at the site constituted an Immediate Danger to Life and Health (IDLH) needing an elevated response," the report said. EPA representatives were called to the scene the following day.
While containing and removing the most hazardous material, state workers noticed a leaking container of hexavalent chrome, a known carcinogen that is sometimes prevalent in metal welding fumes. Care Environmental’s Georgia permit was revoked in February 2020 and the company was ordered to pay a $56,225 civil penalty.
"Ironically … it [the S.T.O.P. program] is to help keep our environment clean," said Southampton Town Attorney James Burke. "So, you hate to see that it ends up damaging some other area."