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N.J. sues owners of contaminated Camden property, citing need for environmental justice

New Jersey's Attorney General's office and Department of Environmental Protection filed suit Thursday against the owner and previous owners of a contaminated site in Camden, saying polluters in minority and lower-income communities across the state are blocking revitalization efforts in those neighb

Site of illegal dumping at 260-268 Chestnut Street in Camden, N.J. taken Friday, Sept. 13, 2019. (Office of the Attorney General / Tim Larsen)
Site of illegal dumping at 260-268 Chestnut Street in Camden, N.J. taken Friday, Sept. 13, 2019. (Office of the Attorney General / Tim Larsen)Read moreN.J. Office of Attorney General / Tim Larsen

New Jersey filed suit Thursday against the current and previous owners of a contaminated former scrap metal and smelting operation in Camden, saying polluters operating in minority and lower-income communities are blocking revitalization efforts.

The civil suit, filed in Superior Court, was one of five filed at the same time statewide, from Trenton to Newark, by the Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Environmental Protection. It is part of an environmental justice initiative by Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and DEP Commissioner Catherine R. McCabe.

“Today’s six enforcement actions are just the latest salvo in our ongoing efforts to stand up for environmental justice and to fight for communities across the state that have been ignored in the past,” Grewal said. “Our message to polluters is once again clear: You cannot pollute the state’s air, water, or land and get away with it under our watch."

The Camden property is at 260-68 Chestnut Ave., in the central waterfront area where many scrap yards have operated over the decades.

Neither the current owner, Andre Webb of Camden, nor a former owner, William Yocco of Haddonfield, could be reached immediately for comment. According to the suit, William and Damon Yocco owned the site for years before selling it to Webb in July 2019. Damon Yocco now lives in the Caribbean.

All current and former owners face up to $50,000 per day for violations. The state has given them until Dec. 31 to clean up the property.

It is not clear whether Webb uses the property for any business purposes.

Troubles for the Yoccos with the state stem from March 12, 2013, when representatives from the DEP and Camden’s code enforcement bureau inspected the property. They found 17 55-gallon drums labeled either as isopropyl alcohol or used oil. Other containers found on site held paint thinners and other possible hazardous waste.

The DEP assessed $5,000 in penalties to each of the Yoccos.

Inspectors appeared again two days later and saw two large piles of demolition debris, metals and fill dirt. One pile was 35 feet wide, 110 feet long, and 10 feet high. The second pile was 25 feet by 75 feet.

Once again, the DEP issued notice of a violation and ordered the Yoccos to remove all the material from the property. However, a 2014 re-inspection showed that additional solid waste had been dumped on the property.

The DEP then cited the Yoccos for operating a solid waste facility without a permit in June 2015 and assessed more penalties.

The Yoccos eventually removed one ton of solid waste, as well as used motor oil, from the site, but other hazardous waste remained.

The suit alleges that 10,000 cubic yards of waste remained on site when the Yoccos sold the property to Webb this year.

The suit charges the Yoccos and Webb with operating a solid waste facility without a permit and failing to properly dispose of illegal solid waste.

The property lies within an area designated for redevelopment and the waste is hindering the process, the suit charges. “Concerted action is therefore necessary to address these harms and allow for progress in this area of Camden,” the suit states.

Environmental groups such as Clean Water Action and the New Jersey Sierra Club praised the suit.

“Industrial operations and illegal dumping have occurred without consequence for too long," said Amy Goldsmith, New Jersey state director for Clean Water Action. “This is especially true in [environmental justice] communities that are disproportionately impacted by toxic discharges into the air, water and ground.”

Thursday’s suits were the latest round of such actions targeting polluters since Gov. Phil Murphy took office in 2018.