New Jersey politics as usual?

LocalSource investigates whether the political contributions of Soil Safe warrant the extensive concern they have received from many outlets

File Photo Soil Safe’s political donations are outpaced by their biggest competitor in the state, Bayshore Recycling.
File Photo
Soil Safe’s political donations are outpaced by their biggest competitor in the state, Bayshore Recycling.

This article is the second in a series on the Rahway Arch project in the works for a site at the mouth of the Rahway River. 

UNION COUNTY — Dozens of media outlets have written opinion pieces and news articles related to the Rahway Arch project in Carteret, and most, if not all, have expressed grave concerns about the project. The project may cause flooding, they say. The contamination may cause toxic floodwater to travel upstream and into neighborhood streets and homes in Linden, Rahway, Cranford and Springfield, they insist.

But an altogether more sinister reason for much of the concern has raised its ugly head, and it’s one that may very well be quite familiar to the informed residents of New Jersey: very broad and far reaching political connections.

The project in question has come to be known as the Rahway Arch project and involves placing a cap on top of cyanide-contaminated sludge at the mouth of the Rahway River. The sludge, according to the Licensed Site Remediation Professional, or LSRP, has been leaking harmful pollutants into the Rahway River and the Arthur Kill for decades. However, the cap itself has raised additional concerns as it contains different pollutants in the form of petroleum products.

The site includes multiple impoundments of varying depths and earthen walls that contain the contaminated sludge. According to the LSRP and the NJDEP, groundwater has been infiltrating the site and rainwater runoff has been breaching the walls and contaminants have been migrating unfettered.

The project earned its name from the company that owns the property: Rahway Arch Properties. The company is based in Florham Park, and in a plan to turn a profit from otherwise worthless wetlands, Rahway Arch has chosen Soil Safe, a Maryland-based company, to remediate the site. Soil Safe plans to use soil previously contaminated with petroleum products to cap the site, and in essence recycling otherwise useless dirt. Taking that soil off other company’s hands earns Soil Safe a profit. Dumping that soil earns Carteret a profit in the form of tipping or impact fees. And Rahway Arch earns a profit by renting out the property as a recycling center.

Everybody wins. The site is remediated, the contamination is contained, and everybody involved profits at no cost to taxpayers, according to statements made by many of the parties involved. In fact, the NJDEP even says that the site will not cause increased flooding upstream and will not cause an increase in contamination.

And yet, concerned individuals and groups have refused to take the claims of these experts at face value, and insist on more evidence to be as certain as possible that the project is safe and sound. The reason for their less than trustworthy attitude may in fact stem from the multitude of political players involved, and some media outlets have even insinuated that Gov. Chris Christie’s office is involved.

LocalSource looked into the media coverage of the Rahway Arch project, and found dozens of articles, columns and editorials addressing the concerns, and many of them sounding many alarms. But in nearly a year’s worth of coverage, not a single news source could be found that provided significant details on the project, and yet they all made the claim that the implications are far reaching and potentially dangerous to the public.

On July 22, 2013, nj.com published an editorial titled “State must be cautious with Rahway River Cleanup.” In it, NJ.com warns that the politcal connections alone warrant taking a closer look.

“Paul Weiner, the law partner of Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union) is one of the property owners, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee Chair Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) serves as Soil Safe’s attorney,” the editorial reads. “The firm also has a long relationship with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who as a freeholder helped approve work agreements that brought it to his home county.”

All of this is true. But none of the details are provided. Instead, the editorial reads “Pardon our skepticism, but in New Jersey, that flags attention.”

Earlier that month, on July 10, former Cranford Mayor Dan Aschenbach also wrote a column that was published on the nj.com website. He expressed the same concerns regarding political connections.

Editorials and columns like this, none of them providing details, have been published at silive.com, a Staten Island newspaper, on mycentraljersey.com, the Huffington Post, and the New York Times, among others. A simple Google search provides dozen of opinion pieces, all of them sounding alarms. More recently, NJ.com published two more editorials about the project, one of them appearing on March 3 titled “Christie administration plan for landfill smells.“

“Critics be damned, the Christie administration has given yet another hasty approval to a politically connected project that endangers the Rahway River,” the March 3 editorial states.

Alarms have surely been raised from many outlets, and again, LocalSource has found none of them provide significant details. LocalSource has looked extensively at Soil Safe and their history in New Jersey, including their many political contributions and connections in an effort to provide some of the missing details.

Soil Safe, New Jersey and political contributions
Soil Safe opened its first long-term operation in New Jersey in late 2003 in Logan township, but their political connections in the state go back as far as 1999.

According to the Election Law Enforcement Commission, Soil Safe has donated a total of $33,850 to politicians and political groups since 1999, beginning with donations to Salem County Democrats and Republicans. But that is the first and only donation made to a Republican in a historically Democratic state. It was for $600.

Between 1999 and 2009, Soil Safe made dozens of contributions to Democratic freeholder committees in Gloucester and Salem counties, to the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, and to Senate President Stephen Sweeney.

The NJ Democratic State Committee received $6,000 between 2002 and 2004.

Sweeney, representing parts of Gloucester County and Salem County as a state senator, as well as being a former freeholder for Gloucester County, received $5,000 between 2003 and 2008. Logan is located in Gloucester County.

Most interestingly, the Gloucester County Democratic party received $21,000 in political contributions between 2003 and 2009.

LocalSource was able to determine from the Gloucester County budgets of 2006, 2007 and 2008 that the county is netting a significant profit from the Logan site.

According to these budgets, the county netted $325,000 in 2005, $366,135 in 2006, and $582,080 in 2007 in the form of “impact fees.”

LocalSource spoke with Jonathan Jaffe of Jaffe Communications, a spokesman for Soil Safe. Soil Safe declined to comment on the expected profit from the site in Carteret and the revenues from the site in Logan.

When asked if the contributions create a conflict of interest in New Jersey, Jaffe gave an authoritative “no.”

“Soil Safe makes contributions to causes, people and parties that we believe in,” he said. “In all cases, we contributed significantly less than the allowable contributions, just like hundreds and thousands of other people and companies do. Just as this project’s opponents do.”

In addition to the contributions made by Soil Safe, the company’s CEO, Mark Smith, has donated tens of thousands of dollars to Democrats in New Jersey as well.

When asked about the additional contributions from the Soil Safe CEO, again Jaffe said it was all simply for a good cause.

“Mark Smith donated $500 out of his own pocket to the Carteret Police Fund to buy new bullet proof vests for their officers,” he said.

That $500 donation pales in comparison to the $30,250 Smith has donated to many of the same groups and individuals as Soil Safe, but also to additional groups.

In fact, Soil Safe donations have all but stopped since 2009, but donations by Smith began where they left off.

Beginning in 2010, Smith began donating heavily to Gloucester County Democrats, Sweeney, mayors in both Logan and Carteret, Sen. Fred Madden of New Jersey’s 4th district representing parts of Gloucester County, the Carteret General Democratic Organization and to the Middlesex County Democrats.

Democrats in Gloucester County have received a combined $40,500 in donations from Soil Safe and its CEO. Of that total, $19,500 came from Smith between 2010 and 2012.

When asked why in particular Smith, the CEO of a Maryland-based company, has donated $1,350 to the mayor of Logan, Frank Minor, and to the Carteret General Democratic Organization – both political donations on a municipal level – Jaffe’s answer once again said it was a cause Soil Safe believed in.

“The reason we contribute is because we believe in them as local leaders and we want to see them continue to succeed. Mayor Reiman [of Carteret] supported our project before any contributions were made,” said Jaffe. “When you work in a community, you want to be a good neighbor and give back. Soil Safe will be looking to sponsor Little League teams and to give small scholarships in the area. Most large companies give back.”

While the donations are not illegal, many of them have nonetheless raised eyebrows. Perhaps the timing of many of the donations has played a hand.

On Feb. 17, 2012, the Middlesex County Freeholders released a press release saying the Middlesex County Solid Waste Advisory Committee approved of the Soil Safe recycling facility project in Carteret. In 2012, Middlesex County Democrats received $2,500 and the Carteret Democrats received $900 from Soil Safe’s CEO.

On the state level, the permit for the site with the NJDEP was applied for on Feb. 21, 2012. Between 2011 and 2013, Sweeney received $3,500 from Soil Safe’s CEO. Madden received $2,500 between 2010 and 2013.

But the donating coincidences seemingly timed with permits and approval dates back to the initial Logan site in 2003. The Class B recycling permit application for the Logan Site was applied for on June 10, 2003. Again, Logan is located in Gloucester County where Sweeney was a freeholder at the time.

Between 2002 and 2004, the NJ Democratic State Committee received $6,000 from Soil Safe. Sweeney received $5,000 from Soil Safe beginning in 2003 and the Gloucester County Democratic Executive Committee received $21,000 between 2003 and 2009.

In addition, between 2004 and 2009, Soil Safe applied for and received nine modifications to their existing permit in Logan, and received renewal of their permit twice, in 2009 and again in January of 2014.

LocalSource was unable to verify the dates of county and local approvals in Gloucester County and Logan township.

Permit violations by Soil Safe sound alarms
Another concern many environmental groups have had regarding Soil Safe operations involves these permits. According to the Courier Post Online in a March 15 article titled “Citations raise concerns about trails at Gloucester County Park,” the Delaware Riverkeeper Network filed a federal lawsuit in March “attempting to cease Soil Safe’s operations,” the article stated.

The lawsuit is backed by multiple environmental groups and claims “the company violated its state-issued permits” and its “operations endanger public and environmental health,” the article reads.

This violation has, as the title of the article suggests, raised concerns about recycled soil the company has provided for a horse-riding and dog park area known as DREAM Park.

According to an article posted on the West Deptford Patch.com site in December of 2010, Sweeney was on hand for the ribbon cutting of the dog park.

“The dog park was built with fencing donated by Logan Townships Soil Safe Inc., which Sweeney called ‘a great corporate neighbor’ for helping get the park built,” the post reads.

Soil Safe also donated previously contaminated and now recycled soil for the riding trails throughout the park, and environmentalists are now concerned about the potential for that soil to be harmful to visitors of the park.

When asked about permit violations in New Jersey, Soil Safe’s spokesperson said the company had a stellar record.

“In 11 years, Soil Safe has recycled nearly 5 million tons of soil. In that time, Soil Safe received six notices of violations, all of which have been settled,” said Jaffe. “All but two were self-reported. Most were resolved without fines and this incredible track record is virtually incomparable in the industry. There have been, in the past 10 years, more than 270 inspections by various regulatory agencies.”

According to the NJDEP and confirmed by Soil Safe, all of the violations listed online at the Logan site are “technical violations” and not environmental ones. These sorts of violations tend to have small penalties.

In one instance, Soil Safe was fined $3,600. According to Jaffe, this was for a minor offense.

“We did not process more than was permitted,” he said. “In that case, we received more tonnage in the door. If someone had processed more than they were permitted to do, the fines and penalties would have been enormous. Way over $3,600.”

Another political connection that has caused many environmentalists to worry relates to the company’s legal representation.

Bob Smith is a land use attorney. According to his website, “prior to becoming an attorney in private practice, Smith was a professor of Chemistry and Environmental Science at Middlesex County College. He holds Master’s degrees in Chemistry from the University of Scranton and Environmental Science from Rutgers University, as well as a J.D. in law from Seton Hall University.”

He has also been a state senator since 1986 and is currently the Senate Environment and Energy Committee Chair.

“He served as the land use attorney for the project at a local and county level,” said Jaffe. “We have no concerns whatsoever. Bob Smith is a well known, long-serving land use attorney who is capable and ethical. It’s a very common practice. It’s a very welcomed practice.”

When asked if Soil Safe considered this a conflict of interest, Jaffe said “This isn’t his legislative district. No.”

“Just like … other people and companies do”
In the interest of fairness, LocalSource asked Soil Safe who they felt was one of their biggest competitors in New Jersey. According to Jaffe, Bayshore Recycling is the biggest competitor.

“Established in 1995 by Valerie and Frank Montecalvo, our New Jersey recycling facility has become an outlet for the recycling of concrete, asphalt, brick, block, bulky waste, construction debris, non-hazardous petroleum contaminated soil and other diverse materials at a time when landfills were the primary destination for recyclable waste,” according to the Bayshore website. “Our NJ recycling center, also known as New Jersey’s eco-complex and energy campus, is headquartered in the Keasbey section of Woodbridge Township, NJ, along the Raritan River with convenient access via road, barge or rail.”

A brief comparison of political contributions between Bayshore and Soil Safe can be very telling.

Soil Safe and its CEO combined donated more than $66,000, almost entirely to Democrats, between 1999 and 2013.

Bayshore’s two CEO’s and the company itself have contributed $115,019.33 to politicians and various political parties statewide, according to Election Law Enforcement Commission reports.

In addition to the Bayshore contributions being made almost strictly to Democrats – many of them to the same groups as Soil Safe – Bayshore also made three donations in Carteret in 2010, each totaling $1,306.61 to three municipal governing members: Jorge Diaz, Vincent Bellino and Mayor Daniel Reiman.

Again, Carteret is located in Middlesex County. Both Soil Safe’s CEO and Bayshore have made contributions to Middlesex County Democratic freeholder candidates and committees, some of them during the exploratory, proposal and permitting processes of the Rahway Arch site.

In 2012, Soil Safe’s CEO contributed $2,500 to the Middlesex County Democratic Committee, which represents the total of the donations within this county’s borders.

Between 2000 and 2013, Bayshore Recycling contributed $71,619.83 in Middlesex County, including to representatives of New Jersey’s 19th legislative district, Carteret officials, Middlesex County freeholders and freeholder committees. Bayshore is located in Middlesex County.

In addition, Bayshore also donated $1,300 to Sen Bob Smith in June of 2013, the land use attorney hired by Soil Safe who also serves as the chair of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.

More than $18,000 was also donated to the NJ Democratic State Committee by Bayshore between 2000 and 2013.

It is interesting to note that in last week’s extensive article on the Rahway Arch site, the NJDEP said that Soil Safe is the only company that has provided a solution to the contamination in Carteret in the past several decades that will permanently remediate the site and meet the NJDEP’s guidelines.

As Jaffe said regarding Soil Safe’s political donations: “In all cases, we contributed significantly less than the allowable contributions, just like hundreds and thousands of other people and companies do. Just as this project’s opponents do.”

Sweeney and the mayor of Carteret did not respond to requests for comment before press time.