Last month Feliciano Sandoval pulled up to the giant housing shed at the Merlino Brothers blueberry farm in Hammonton and spotted a woman parked in an unfamiliar car.
“Federales,” Sandoval, a crew supervisor, would later say, the term migrant workers use for any government agent.
Through the car’s open window, she told him others were coming.
Soon, she and three other inspectors headed into the sheet-metal shed, packed with bunk beds that in peak season accommodated 50 to 100 migrant workers, all without indoor toilets, running water, or fire sprinklers.
“They went inside as if they had a marching order,” said Sandoval, a Mexican native who has been working in South Jersey’s blueberry fields for three decades. Outside, they examined water sources, the bank of portable latrines, and the kitchen barn.
They weren’t federal agents, rather a team of inspectors from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the Atlantic County Health Department. In mid-July they swept into Merlino Brothers Farm and seven other Hammonton farms in the “Blueberry Capital of the World” and cited six of them for breaking New Jersey’s Water Pollution Control Act.
Merlino Brothers Farm and four others were found to have septic systems that were either malfunctioning or overflowing, failing to capture the daily sewage — more than 2,000 gallons of filthy water, cooking grease, detergent and even human waste draining into the groundwater — often just a couple of hundred feet from where the blueberries grew.
The recent violations reveal a negligent farming practice that has been going on for years, maybe decades, at some of New Jersey’s 51 commercial blueberry farms. The Inquirer’s reporting also found that local, county, and state government agencies may have missed or ignored signs that some of the state’s farms have illegally set up migrant housing camps, potentially harming workers as well as the thousands of consumers who eat the berries.
“They are trying to cut corners and save money and at the same time they are polluting the environment,” Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said. “It’s not just the environment. It’s basic public-health rules.”
He called the treatment of migrants “New Jersey’s shame for over 40 years.”
Every year, thousands of seasonal workers from Mexico, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere spend about eight weeks living on the blueberry fields they are hired to pick. The workers are usually housed in large metal structures, called pole barns, meant for storing farm equipment. The barns have windows but lack fire sprinklers and other fire safety measures required of residential facilities. Dozens of bunk beds line each side.
The kitchen, showers, and large sinks to wash dishes and clothes are housed in a separate metal structure. A row of portable toilets faces the sleeping barns.
Businesses that rely on septic tanks, including farms, must obtain a permit from the state DEP, which will then inspect each system annually. But the farms cited in July did not have permits. As a result, state environmental inspectors had not visited these farms for years, if ever.
“The possibility exists” of long-term pollution, said Richard Paull, state DEP water and land use enforcement director. “But it’s tough for us to say since we haven’t been there [before].”
And while the department conducted sweeps in cities looking for illegal septic systems, it hasn’t done a sweep of the agriculture industry, Paull said.
Because of the area’s shallow, sandy soil, polluted water quickly can seep into wells and streams, Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, said. The biggest risk from polluted drainage, he said, is that crops and drinking and irrigation wells draw on the same groundwater.
In addition, he said, chemicals, detergents, and sewage also make their way into streams where they can hurt fish, salamanders, and other wildlife as the polluted water flows its way to the Atlantic Ocean.
"It’s not surprising that it would happen, “ he said of the pollution. “It’s surprising that it would only be addressed now."
If it weren’t for two whistle-blowers who began complaining to government agencies in 2013, these pollution and housing problems may have gone unaddressed for years longer.
In early 2013, Joseph H. Kayati Jr., a former police officer, and a friend, Anthony DiMeo III, joined a partnership with two of DiMeo’s relatives to operate a blueberry farm previously known as Indian Brand Farms.
In his new role, Kayati helped fill out an annual U.S. Department of Agriculture audit of the farm when he discovered leaking oil tanks next to the fields as well as housing sheds without a septic system. Sewage was piped directly into a nearby stream.
Concerned, he said he told his business partners, but they said that’s the way it’s always been. Alarmed, Kayati reported the problems to the Atlantic County Division of Public Health through an anonymous tip line. (Kayati was ousted from the business after two months and he and DiMeo sued DiMeo’s relatives.)
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Later that year, the state DEP ordered the farm to install a septic system. In 2014, the agency cited the farm again, this time for illegal discharges from its overflowing septic tank. (That same year, Kayati was charged by the state attorney general with allegedly stealing his late father’s annuity checks. Charges were later dismissed.) The housing camp has since been shut down.
In the years that followed, Kayati and DiMeo complained to agencies about groundwater pollution and unsafe housing sheds at other blueberry farms.
“We started to see a pattern, a modus operandi, of how the federal, state, and local agencies were turning a blind eye to obvious environmental and human-rights violations,” Kayati said.
They continued to pepper the agencies with complaints, with little result, until 2018.
Although the state Department of Labor is responsible for inspecting housing camps to make sure they are complying with state and federal laws, a department spokesperson declined to say whether the agency had inspected any of the cited blueberry farms. The Inquirer has filed a public-records request seeking any records.
At the local level, government officials for Hammonton and neighboring Mullica Township can enforce zoning and building-code violations. But they did not answer a reporter’s requests for information or provide comment about any enforcement efforts at the blueberry farms.
However, documents obtained by The Inquirer show that in May 2018 Hammonton and Mullica Township issued construction-code violations to eight blueberry farms for failure to get the proper housing permits for its sleeping barns. The structures had initially been approved by local government agencies to store farm equipment.
Mullica Township Construction Official Tom Holroyd and Township Zoning Official Ed Toussaint said in a letter to farm owners that changing use of the barns from storage to housing without approval violated state code and carried penalties of up to $2,000 per day.
Holroyd and Toussaint also told the farmers they had referred complaints of the farms’ “gray water” discharge into the water table to the Atlantic County Board of Health and state DEP, leaving it to those two agencies to take action.
In the late July sun at Merlino Brothers Farm, a crew of about 10 men raked the soil around the blueberry bushes. Sandoval, a year-round supervisor, pulled up in his pickup truck to check in.
With birds chirping and frogs croaking in a nearby pond, the men had few complaints about their housing conditions. Like Sandoval, they weren’t seasonal pickers, but workers who lived on the farm for six to eight months and have better accommodations.
“Those who come to pick and already left, well they are in a hall with 50 or 100 people,” Sandoval said in Spanish.
Merlino Brothers was also one of the eight farms issued violations by the township for having illegally converted storage barns to housing units. And although Sandoval believed the farm passed the DEP inspection a few weeks earlier, DEP documents show otherwise.
Sandoval said that at Merlino Brothers, where he has labored for 15 years, only single men work there and they keep it orderly. He said not all farms are like that. He has seen school buses pick up children from housing sheds at other farms.
“I don’t understand how they pass inspection,” he said.
Just a few fields down, William Fragozo, 21, was picking the last of the blueberry crop on Pleasantdale Farms, formerly part of Indian Brand. Fragozo was born and raised in Hammonton to blueberry workers who immigrated from Mexico in the 1980s.
He went to the Hammonton public schools and is planning to enroll at Atlantic Cape Community College this fall.
“We try to make it as comfortable as possible. But yeah, it’s been like that,” he said of conditions in the housing sheds. “Personally, I don’t want to live here all my life. ... I am trying to find a place for us, for my family, to live better.”
Pleasantdale Farms was also cited last year for having two equipment barns used for unapproved housing.
Fragozo said he and his family live in a smaller, different barn than the one that houses the seasonal migrant workers. But his home still swells with other workers in the summer. And so, during those busy days, he and his family often use the portable toilets lined up outside for the seasonal employees.
Nevertheless, he said the owners have been good to him and his family.
“We know the farmer. His name is Mike DiMeo. We lived under him for many years now,” he said.
Despite the referrals from May 2018, the state DEP and the Atlantic County Health Department did not take any action that year. But the state Department of Community Affairs, which oversees state fire codes, did.
In a May 2018 letter to the township construction officials, the agency said that since the farms were already in the blueberry-growing season, the state would allow the farmers to address their fire-code violations in two stages: Install hardwired smoke alarms and fire extinguishers by that summer. And by the 2019 season, install sprinkler systems and meet the requirement for a residential permit from the township and the Pinelands Commission, an independent state agency that oversees planning, development, and protection of the Pinelands National Reserve.
Chuck Horner, the commission’s director of regulatory programs, said in a recent interview that of the eight farms cited in 2018 for using storage sheds as housing, seven have either failed to come into compliance or have not responded.
The commission could take the farmers to court, but Horner said, “We’re not there yet.”
It’s unclear if Mullica Township issued fines for its violations. Holroyd didn’t reply to several requests for comment left at his office and on his phone.
Kayati, the whistle-blower, said his badgering of state, county, and local officials may have led to some of the citations. He is pleased some farms have installed push bars on exit doors and hardwired smoke detectors. Others have not yet followed their compliance orders, he said.
“Absolutely no enforcement in fines or penalties. How do you explain that?” he said.
The state Department of Community Affairs declined to make a knowledgeable official available for an interview. In an emailed statement, a spokesperson said:
“We’re realizing that this issue expands across the State and beyond the DCA’s role as the State’s enforcing agency. ... We are working toward a solution to bring the farmers into compliance.”
Of the farm owners who were cited, Anthony Vaccarella of Vaccarella Farms was the only one who commented, saying he had fixed a broken pipe connected to his septic system. All the other owners either declined to comment, denied having been cited at all, or could not be reached.
In response to the enforcement requirements, farmers sought the help of legislators. In June, New Jersey lawmakers introduced a package of bills that would loosen the fire-code requirements for seasonal agricultural labor housing.
One of the farmers whose business was cited said that none of the farmers have yet to install the fire-suppression sprinklers currently required by law for large residential structures.
“They’re trying to pass new laws on that, so that’s on hold for now,” said the farmer, who spoke only if not identified by name.
For its part, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection said it plans to notify all farms about the need to have proper permits and systems for septic waste.
“I’m sure there are other facilities out there, farms or companies or whatever, that have septic discharges that we are not aware of,” Paull, the New Jersey compliance director for water use, said. “And when we become aware, then we will investigate.”
Pennsylvania, like New Jersey, typically inspects farms for environmental violations because someone has complained.
A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection wrote in an email: “Our staff cannot recall any recent cases of sewage problems at migrant camps on PA farms.”
Back at Merlino Brothers Farm, Sandoval raked alongside the rest of his crew, prepping the bushes for next season.
He expects to see the same workers next year. Blueberry farm workers tend to come back year after year, he said. Most of them are unskilled. They endure subpar living conditions to make some money.
Plus, Sandoval said, picking the tiny berries is easy work compared with harvesting the much heavier oranges and apples.
“They say, ‘This is where we come to relax!’ ” Sandoval said.