The new year already has brought another crackdown on illegal dumping in New Jersey.
Gov. Phil Murphy has signed a bill targeting violations in the solid waste, recycled fill and hazardous waste industries. The new law expands licensing and background checks for businesses and a wide range of their workers, down to the brokers, salespeople and consultants who can be part of the problem.
The law also gives law enforcement new powers to help catch violators, including entering properties and taking samples, and stopping dump trucks to check their loads and licenses.
It also specifies greater possible penalties for illegal dumping of such materials, with third-degree criminal penalties and civil fines up to $100,000 possible.
The effectiveness of the crackdown, as usual, will depend on rigorous enforcement and sentences that use the increased penalties to discourage these self-serving actions that degrade and contaminate the living habitat of everyone. Some South Jersey cases in recent years suggest that effort often falls short.
Illegal dumpers have been caught despoiling Belleplain and Wharton state forests, Peaslee Wildlife Management Area, Port Republic, Cape Island, Beaver Swamp, Hammonton Creek and Makepeace Lake. But in many cases, perpetrators paid a small fraction of the maximum fine for their crimes — for example, facing a maximum of $31,500 but paying just $1,500, or facing $26,500 and paying $500.
No wonder illegal dumping remains too common in New Jersey. There are plenty of crackdowns, they’re just not effective enough.
This month’s new law grew out of the State Commission of Investigation’s Dirty Dirt II report in June detailing loopholes in solid waste laws. That followed its original Dirty Dirt report in 2017. The SCI held a public hearing on the problem in 2016, and first started reporting on the issue in 2011.
The state’s 2015 crackdown on dumping, called Don’t Waste Our Open Space, yielded 62 enforcement actions in a little more than a year. Motion-activated cameras were deployed and a free smartphone app was offered to the public to immediately and anonymously report a dumping site’s location, size and type, as well as include a photo of the debris. (It’s available at stopdumping.nj.gov.)
That was an excellent effort, but five years later it’s clear it wasn’t nearly enough.
Illegal dumpers are gaming the system. They know that enforcement is inconsistent and that the penalties are usually tolerable if they are among the small percentage of violators who get caught.
The answer isn’t diverting a lot of law enforcement to this effort, which would be costly and take officers away from other important jobs. It’s making examples of illegal dumpers who get caught, imposing high fines and jail time on them. Do that enough and businesses and individuals will quit trying to save a little money at everyone else’s expense.
The penalties should reflect the number of people harmed — the whole public — not on the small gains of the violators.