Thursday, December 14, 2006

Sink, stank, stunk again

Incompetence or corruption? That's the question on my mind as I ponder the DEC's record of regulating sand mines in Riverhead.

And considering the cast of characters involved, I'd probably be smart to shut up and forget about it. But I can't.

We've got a sand mine problem in the Town of Riverhead, and the state DEC is right smack in the middle of it.

Beginning in 1998, Calverton Industries excavated 2.25 million cubic yards of sand out of a 41-acre site in Calverton. The company didn't bother to get the required permits from the town or the state before starting its lucrative dig — the estimated market value of the sand hauled out of there was more than $10 million. After the state DEC went to court and got a restraining order, Calverton Industries applied for a state mining permit. Meanwhile, Riverhead adopted a law banning all sand mining here.

Nevertheless, the state DEC gave Calverton Industries a mining permit. And it did so with the minimum amount of environmental scrutiny allowed by law: The DEC issued a negative declaration of significance, a finding under SEQRA that the project would have no significant potential environmental impacts and did not require an environmental impact statement.

A 41-acre hole in the ground, 40 feet deep, located in a state-designated groundwater protection district — a hole that's to be filled with waste as part of the "reclamation" process. No significant potential environmental impacts? Are they kidding?

The negative SEQRA declaration prompted the town to sue the DEC in 1999, a lawsuit the town eventually won in late 2001, when a court ordered the DEC to reconsider its finding.

But the court actions continued and so did the mining — and filling. The mining is completed now and only the filling remains. And the filling of that huge hole is what makes this story really interesting.

While, in the name of groundwater protection, the DEC ordered closed all municipal solid waste landfills on Long Island in the 1990s, the DEC issued permits for several privately run landfills like the one operated by Calverton Industries. The DEC hates it when you call them landfills; they prefer the term "mine reclamation." But they are, in fact, landfills — big holes in which waste is buried.

The type of waste is what makes the difference. Municipal solid waste, or MSW, poses a potential groundwater threat. It contains stuff that would pollute the groundwater if carried to the aquifer by rainwater percolating through the layers of soil. Other types of waste, such as concrete and asphalt made with approved raw materials, are deemed "clean fill" by the DEC, and can be buried in an unlined hole like the one Calverton Industries dug.

But make no mistake: There's plenty of incentive to bury more than clean fill in a hole like the one in Calverton. Disposing of MSW is costly — it either has to be shipped to out-of-state landfills or burned at the Hempstead incinerator; either way the waste hauler must pay significant per-ton tipping fees. If the waste is contaminated — if, say, it contains asbestos or other materials deemed hazardous — the cost of disposal increases exponentially.

Given all that, monitoring what goes into our 41-acre hole in a special groundwater protection district on the edge of the central pine barrens is pretty important, don't you think?

But day-to-day monitoring of the site is on the honor system, because a DEC inspector visits the site only once or twice a week and the town hasn't been allowed access to the site.

Now all this would be unsettling enough if it weren't for the identity of the operators of the site.

Enter Michael Cholowsky, Calverton Industries president. He testified in federal court that he bribed Brookhaven town officials to gain access to the town landfill, where he dumped solid waste in the mid to late 1990s. Cholowsky had a close relationship with East Patchogue salvage yard owner Joseph Provenzano, who pled guilty in 1999 to 17 counts of federal stolen truck, extortion, witness tampering and racketeering charges and was sentenced to eight years in jail. Evidence gathered by federal investigators established that Provenzano was using Cholowsky's hauling permit (issued to his company Sky Materials) to illegally dump hazardous waste at the Brookhaven landfill, according to reports in Newsday in 1999. Cholowsky's testimony helped send John Powell, Suffolk County Republican leader, to prison.

Cholowsky doesn't own Calverton Industries, according to an affidavit he gave the DEC in 2000. He said the company is owned by his brother, Robert Cholowsky, and John Montecalvo, a paving contractor indicted earlier this year on federal bid-rigging charges.

In the affidavit, Cholowsky swore he had no involvement in the solid waste industry and would have no involvement in it, except for handling concrete and asphalt for recycling. The DEC got the affidavit from Cholowsky to safeguard — on paper, anyway — against the dumping of solid waste at the Calverton Industries mine site. The DEC even made the affidavit a condition of the Calverton Industries permit, stipulating that the CI permit would be "deemed" automatically revoked if Cholowsky got back in the solid waste business.

But then the DEC ignored its own permit condition.

In applying for a permit to build and operate a solid waste facility in Brentwood, Cholowsky supplied the DEC in 2004 with signed contracts (signed by him!) indicating that he is in the business of hauling and disposing solid waste. The DEC then issued Cholowsky's company a permit to process 200 tons per day of municipal solid waste.

Evidently the DEC doesn't pay careful attention to the contents of its files. The application forms Cholowsky signed in 2003 and 2004 represented "under penalties of perjury" that he had never been convicted of a crime involving fraud. He pled guilty to conspiring to defraud the U.S. on tax evasion charges in 2000.

The DEC — at the highest levels — does seem to pay attention to who's accessing its files under the freedom of information laws, however. When Riverhead Councilwoman Barbara Blass foiled documents from the Calverton Industries file, DEC regional director Peter Scully reviewed them first, and even attached Post-It Notes to some documents asking questions about their contents before they were turned over to the councilwoman. A couple of those notes were left in the file and copied by Ms. Blass, who showed them to me. I was left wondering what might have been removed from the file before she was given access.

Interestingly, about an hour after the councilwoman returned to Riverhead Town Hall following her appointment at the DEC to review the FOIL documents, Cholowsky called her to tell her that if she had any questions about his business, all she had to do was call him and ask — she didn't need to FOIL records at the DEC. How did he know where Ms. Blass had spent her morning that day?

That's just one of many, many unanswered questions in this saga. Some others: Why are Ed Tuccio and his wife helping to bankroll Mike Cholowsky's financial assurance required by the DEC (to the tune of $200,000)? Cholowsky is a frequent visitor to Ed's bar on Main Street, Tweed's. So is his assistant, Jill Lewis, who left her job as Riverhead deputy supervisor one day and was back in Town Hall the next working for Mike Cholowsky's Sky Materials. So is Lewis's former boss, Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society — which has had oddly little to say about the Calverton Industries sand mine over the years, in spite of its location at the edge of the pine barrens core preservation area. So is Anthony Coates, who rents an apartment from Mr. Tuccio above the Main Street bar and who was a partner of Cholowsky's in Peconic Golf Partners, which proposed digging a 60-acre "lake" at EPCAL a few years ago. Coates was also very involved in running a campaign for supervisor last year by Cholowsky's partner in a fuel oil business, Councilman Ed Densieski.

When Ms. Blass objected to "settling" the Calverton Industries case after the town had won its court decisions, and demanded that the settlement agreement grant the town access to inspect the site — to monitor what was being buried in the town's special groundwater protection area — Councilman Densieski lashed out at her. "I have three words for this resolution," he said at the April 16, 2002, Town Board meeting. "Stinks, stank and stunk."

Well, Ed, you can say that again. Something sure smells in this whole deal, and it's more than the load of dead fish dumped in Barbara Blass's driveway on April 18, 2002, the morning that page one of The News-Review carried the "Stinks, stank, stunk" headline over a story about Ms. Blass demanding accountability at the Calverton Industries sand mine.