Headless Chickens, Goats, Asbestos, Mattresses -- It's All Dumped In 40 Vacant Lots Around Hartford. State And City Health Officers Struggle To Clean It Up.
March 22, 2007
By DANIEL D' AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer
There are certain items you expect to see in the illegal dump along Ledyard and Elliott streets behind Bulkeley High School — one of about 40 such sites in Hartford according to the Department of Environmental Protection.
Orange shag carpet remnants. A twin mattress. Flip-flops and plastic hangers. A flattened backpack. Children’s clothing. A pile of asphalt. But two dead chickens?
The black one, with a hint of emerald, still has its head and claws attached. The white one with flecks of black is decapitated and declawed.
The chickens came as no surprise to Edith Pestana, administrator of the DEP’s Environmental Justice Program, who inspected the site last week with two of her seasonal employees, Christina Johnson and Alvin Harris.
“That’s voodoo,” Pestana said. “We find a lot of that.”
Pestana, a petite woman with red hair and a diamond stud in her nose, said the animal sacrifices, which include a preponderance of beheaded goats, are likely coming from local practitioners of the Yoruba religion, a mixture of nature worship and Catholicism that came to this country from West Africa.
But the DEP has been unable to track any of the sacrifices back to their sources.
“We don’t know who’s doing it,” Pestana said.
Johnson and Harris, who cruise the city’s illegal dumping sites looking for evidence to prosecute offenders — something with a name and address — also regularly find dead dogs, the losing side in illegal fights organized for betting.
One of those dogs, a huge Rottweiler dumped last year near the nature trail behind the Annie Fisher Magnet School, was badly decomposed, creating a stench so powerful school officials called the DEP to look into it. Children from the school regularly use the trail, which is often littered with household trash.
“How evil do you have to be to dump across from an elementary school, it’s just awful,” Pestana said.
Johnson said there were more than 300 illegal dumpings in Hartford in 2006, or nearly one each day, including 60 cases of asbestos dumping. About 100 of those were on city-owned or private property, and were handled by Hartford Zoning Inspector Courtney Dunstan. The rest were on state-owned or other public land and were handled by the DEP.
Dunstan fines illegal dumpers $319 — the tickets are served by police — and requires them to clean up their messes. If he can’t track down the offender, Dunstan calls in the Department of Public Works to clean up.
He said the job can feel hopeless.
“Sometimes it’s like using a rest room in a tornado, but you go out there and do what you can,” Dunstan said. “You feel good when you clean an area up. I live in Hartford and I like to see it clean.”
The DEP’s Environmental Justice Program was formed in 1995 in response to the disproportionate share of environmental pollution borne by the state’s urban areas, particularly low-income areas.
Connecticut’s five major cities, Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, Stamford and Waterbury, have nearly 20 percent of the state’s pollution and 51 percent of the population living in poverty, according to the DEP.
Mark Mitchell, president of the nonprofit Coalition for Environmental Justice, based in Hartford, said one-third of the state’s trash, including sewage sludge and construction debris, comes to Hartford.
“We have the fifth largest trash incinerator in the country,” Mitchell said.
Johnson and Harris found nine black plastic bags filled with asbestos pipe insulation at the Ledyard and Elliott site on March 7. Dumping asbestos is a federal offense under the Clean Air Act, punishable by hefty fines and jail time, and calls for more stringent handling than household garbage or discarded furniture and appliances.
Asbestos, a mineral used for decades for everything from strengthening floor tiles to insulating pipes, is an extreme health hazard when it’s “friable,” meaning it crumbles to the touch. When asbestos crumbles, its microscopic fibers float free, lodging in your lungs where they can eventually lead to mesothelioma, cancer of the lining of the lung or the abdominal cavity.
Johnson called Brian Emanuelson, emergency response coordinator for the DEP’s Emergency Response Unit, to deal with the asbestos.
Emanuelson said it’s likely the asbestos had already endangered whoever filled the bags, probably at a commercial site.
“There’s the possibility the workers didn’t wear proper protection, Then they dump it in an area where other people are exposed to it,” he said.
Proper protection in this instance is not the cheap dust masks people generally throw on when they’re doing a dirty job, but a HEPA filter mask custom-fitted to an individual’s face. If you’re ripping out asbestos with a claw hammer and a Sawzall, you’re probably not wearing custom-fitted breathing apparatus, says Pestana.
“We’ve had cases in the past where we had people dumping asbestos on the sidewalks or an adjacent neighborhood property,” Pestana said. “It’s really a sad and frustrating situation.”
Emanuelson recalled an instance in 2002 at 2004 Evergreen St. when an entire apartment building was ripped apart, scattering asbestos throughout the immediate area. The DEP hired a contractor to clean up, at a cost of nearly $30,000.
“We ended up paying the bill on that one, the responsible party wouldn’t pay,” Emanuelson said.
For the Ledyard and Elliott site, Emanuelson called in Environmental Services Inc. of South Windsor, a firm he uses frequently for clean-ups. Because the site is on city property, the city had to pay the bill, estimated at several thousand dollars.
In addition to the asbestos-filled bags, Emanuelson said Environmental Services pulled 25 to 30 gallons of motor oil out of the woods at the site, along with numerous cans of paint and some aerosols.
“Basically if you have an isolated area in Hartford it’s going to be dumped on whether it’s a cul-de-sac or a field,” Emanuelson said. “People dump everything from asbestos to couches to motor oil.”
The chickens were not included in the clean-up.
“Poultry doesn’t fall under my umbrella,” Emanuelson said.
The asbestos was double-bagged and labeled as required by law, then taken to a transfer facility in Portland, Conn., for shipment in a sealed container to an out-of-state landfill equipped to handle hazardous wastes.
Dan Bresnahan, field services supervisor for Environmental Services, said the nearest such facility is the Turnkey Landfill in Gonic, N.H., which is triple-lined and equipped with piping to collect any leaching.
Materials left at Turnkey are segregated into cells, where they are compacted and then encapsulated in concrete covered with dirt.
To properly remove asbestos from a home or building requires taking out permits from the state Department of Health and following a number of strict rules and procedures to ensure the fibers, smaller than a human hair, don’t escape into the surrounding air. It’s an expensive proposition, running into tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the job, and it’s the reason people foul their own cities.
“The incentive is cost; it’s always the motivating factor in illegal dumping,” Emanuelson said.
And it’s not only asbestos. Consider that a tractor trailer carrying about 100 55-gallon drums of chemicals and paints driven from New York and abandoned in Fairfield last year cost the DEP more than $100,000 to deal with.
On a smaller scale, Emanuelson said an individual recently caught pushing 55-gallon drums filled with chemicals off his pickup truck and into the woods at the state forest in Thompson had to pay $1,500 to hire a company to clean up his mess.
“Somebody has to pick up the tab,” Emanuelson said.
Usually it’s the taxpayers. Asbestos dumpers in particular are careful not to leave any evidence behind, according to Emanuelson. The bags at Elliott and Ledyard streets held no clues.
That’s in sharp contrast to the trash splayed across a field at the end of Wellington Street near Interstate 84 East and a scrap metal yard, another of the “chronic dumping sites” on Johnson’s list of 40 sites.
“The scrap metal yard makes people feel they can dump here,” said Johnson on a recent visit.
Poking through the trash, Pestana quickly picked up on receipts and invoices made out to Y2K Market at 714 Albany Ave.
Pestana said the business will soon find itself the focus of a DEP investigation that will likely result in a $219 fine, plus the cost of cleaning up the mess. Calls to the market by the Advocate went unanswered.
“Very rarely do we catch the person,” said Emanuelson. “When we do we like to run them up the flagpole so people see this type of action will not be tolerated.”