In the year since the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the state Office of the Attorney General sued Sam Russo for years of environmental violations at his roughly 100-acre property in Ocean County, the courts have issued several orders in the agencies’ favor. Now, the state says he’s not complying, and are asking the courts to force Russo to make more changes at what they say is essentially a massive illegal dump.
Russo claims the Plumsted Township property, known as Suzie Q. Farm, is a farm first and foremost, used to to raise hundreds of heads of livestock.
But the state argues that the property has long been used for illegal dumping by Russo’s waste hauling business, Russo, Inc. The state claims Russo’s actions have threatened the health of the surrounding environment. Testing done by the state after the lawsuit was filed found cancer-linked substances contaminating parts of the Russo property.
As a result of the state’s lawsuit, the court has ordered Russo to cut back on importing material to the property. But now, after the state claims Russo has repeatedly refused to cooperate with inspectors, state lawyers are seeking a new court order to enforce existing restrictions.
In a motion filed in Ocean County Superior Court on Wednesday, New Jersey Deputy Attorney General Kevin Fleming asked Judge Craig Wellerson to force Russo to apply for a stormwater permit from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and to provide records of material brought to the property since April. The state is also seeking uninhibited access to the Russo property, to enforce existing court orders.
The Attorney General’s office declined to comment for this story, Earlier this week, the DEP declined to comment on the situation because the court case is ongoing.
Craig Provorny, Russo’s lawyer, did not respond to a request for comment.
Wellerson is scheduled to make a decision on the state’s new motion on October 16.
The motion is a significant development in a case that started last August, when the state took Russo to court for violating the terms of a 2017 settlement Russo had reached with the DEP. According to the state’s complaint, Russo took in more than $300,000 from taking in polluted dirt and other regulated materials between April 2018 and April 2019.
Meanwhile, Suzie Q. Farm only reported $25,000 in farming-related income during 2018, according to the state.
The lawsuit came after decades of back-and-forth between Russo and the DEP. The 2017 settlement that Russo is accused of violating required him to pay more than $170,000 for past environmental infractions. Since then, Russo has racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of new fines from the DEP.
In summer 2018, DEP officials tied water pollution that killed hundreds of fish in a downstream pond to Russo’s property.
At the outset of the proceedings, Russo agreed to stop bringing soil, asphalt and concrete onto the property, and to limit the amount of grass clippings and food waste that is imported for animal feed.
After hearings in December, Wellerson issued an order in April that instructed Russo to comply with two existing DEP orders from 2017, stop bringing in fill material, cease all recycling and composting activities for offsite deliveries and apply to DEP for a stormwater permit.
Russo then appealed to the Superior Court’s Appellate Division, but that effort was rejected this August.
Following the appellate decision, the DEP made multiple requests to Russo for records of materials — specifically grass clippings and food waste — brought to the property since April. Provorny has refused to provide those records, arguing that DEP has no jurisdiction over such material.
“It would be absurd for NJDEP to claim the grass clippings, which are used for feeding of the livestock by Mr. Russo, is a solid waste subject to NJDEP jurisdiction,” Provorny wrote in a letter to state attorneys on August 19.
On at least four occasions in August and September, DEP inspectors have been denied access to the Russo property when they tried to determine if the court orders were being followed, according to the filings.
When DEP inspectors have been allowed on to the property, the state claims that Russo has limited their ability to work. In one example, on September 10, DEP inspectors were barred from the cattle and pig pen areas that make up much of the property after Russo expressed “biosecurity” concerns, according to the filings.
The state notes that Russo has refused to tell DEP what sanitary measures he would like inspectors to take when visiting the property.
The new filings indicate Russo views the inspections as harassment.
“These harassing inspections must cease,” Provorny wrote in his August 19 letter. “I am certain there is no other farm in the state of New Jersey who is subject to the type and volume of inspections being conducted by NJDEP at Mr. Russo’s property.”
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Michael Sol Warren may be reached at [email protected].