MILLTOWN, NJ—The botched demolition of an old tire factory in Milltown caused an oil spill that forced the embattled New Brunswick Water Utility to shut down one of its two pumping stations for more than six weeks.
A follow-up investigation by New Brunswick Today has discovered that one of the parties being held responsible for the October 4 spill is a company led by a convicted felon who pled guilty to federal crimes in a 2005 public corruption case.
Cobra Enterprises, the company responsible for spilling the oil right near the Mill Pond, a section of the Lawrence Brook, apparently quit the job, forcing the state government to hire its own contractor for the arduous cleanup operation.
By October 6, the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) Bureau of Emergency Response had taken over the cleanup, after a cleanup contractor "[walked] off of the job once they started."
"The cleanup contractor that was hired by the demoliton contrctor that caused the spill left the job site, so we took over the cleanup under our publicly funded cleanup program," confirmed a spokesperson for the DEP. "So we'll do the cleanup and then we'll charge the responsible party."
The source of the oil was three transformers dating back to the 1930's that were downed and carelessly left leaking on the waterfront site.
Each transformer contained 880 gallons of oil, which officials feared might contain chemical compounds known as PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyl). It's still unclear how much spilled in total.
PCB's are considered toxic, and a "probable carcinogen" that can cause developmental problems, disrupt hormone function, and lower immune system function.
“When it rains, it pours,” said New Brunswick's Water Director Mark Lavenberg, acknowledging that the spill came on the heels of a water quality violation and a bad water main break that forced many to boil their water for two days.
"It's, like, crazy," said Lavenberg. "What happened there is–to me–it's inexcusable for something like that to happen [to] any body of water, let alone one that's drinking water."
Lavenberg, who took over the embattled Water Utility in July 2015, said he was relieved to learn that the tranformers appeared to contain only traces of PCB's.
"The transformer leak had zero to a very low level of PCB's that would have been involved with the oil," said Lavenberg, citing information from the state's investigation into the incident. "That's not saying in the history of the transformers that they didn't have PCB's in them, but all that was leaked out was just mineral oil."
Nevertheless, the contamination has forced the utility to rely solely on its other raw water source, located in the Delaware & Rartian Canal near Buccleuch Park. Further complicating matters, a drought warning was declared on October 21, seventeen days after the spill first forced the abrupt shutdown.
Located in New Brunswick's neighbor to the south, the piece of land at the center of this story also involves a curious public agency represented by the city's longtime Mayor James Cahill, and involving one of its most notorious developers.
The Milltown-Ford Avenue Redevelopment Agency (MFARA), one of the smallest independent government agencies in Central New Jersey, has been in charge of the still-stalled plans for a redevelopment project at the site.
It's the only major development site in the tiny borough, which is why it gets its own public "redevelopment agency."
Once home to a Michelin factory that made rubber tires, the site has been vacant for decades and eyed for redevelopment by one of New Brunswick's biggest players.
Opened in 1907, Michelin left Milltown in 1930 and the building was used by other companies before eventually being abandoned.
The land it sits on is owned by Morristown lawyer Lawrence Berger, who sued the MFARA, has been the subject of protracted litigation over just how much building to allow.
It's also drawn the interest of the county government, which has agreed to purchase some of the land nearest to the water, in a move that emphasized the potential for conflicts of interest.
Advised by Mayor Cahill, acting in his role as a private attorney, the MFARA recommended Boraie Development, one of the most controversial developers in the history of New Brunswick, be declared the "designated redeveloper."
Boraie Development, a company run by Milltown resident Omar Boraie, has plans to build hundreds of homes as well as retail stores on the site, which sits along a body of water.
Presently, the plan is for 150 townhomes and 200 apartments, of which 70 would be affordable, according to Cahill, who noted there was also "a component of 5,000 square feet of retail [space]."
Boraie has been criticized in the past for its generous political donations, favorable tax breaks, and a $4.8 million allocation of federal Hurricane Sandy relief aid it recieved for one of its highrise developments.
Officials have been working to put Boraie in a position to acquire the Milltown site since at least 2004. The plan has sparked considerable backlash from residents, including a group called "Keep Milltown Historic."
"The Mayor, Council and the [MFARA] would like you to believe that this plan will be the best for Milltown but in reality this plan will overburden our existing infrastructure, increase traffic and safety concerns on an already busy Main Street, overburden our school system, change Milltown's landscape and small town feel and most importantly RAISE OUR TAXES," reads the group's website.
But Berger, a partner in the Berger & Bornstein firm who says he bought the land in the 1980's, still says he hasn't ruled out developing the site himself.
The borough's Mayor, Eric Steeber, said that Berger wants to build even more units than Boraie, and expressed concern over the impact on the small town.
The NJDEP says it is jointly blaming Berger, and a South Jersey company called Cobra Enterprises, for the spill.
Reached at a phone number affiliated with the company, Alex Abdalla blamed the spill on another company, before hanging up the phone. The company Abdalla fingered for the error disavowed any involvement in the project.
"Wait, are you with the press?" asked Abdalla, after he had been asked to spell the name of the company he believed was truly responsible for the spill.
"I can't talk to you about that job site," said Abdalla before hanging up, after learning it was a reporter on the other end of the phone.
Abdalla pleaded guilty to corruption charges in 2005, after federal law enforcement accused him of conspiring to bribe the Mayor of Ewing and officials at the Mercer County Improvement Authority, who rigged bids to ensure his previous demolition company, All-American Demolition, won government work.
He was credited with cooperating with the federal investigation, and wore a "wire" for the feds, but nevertheless pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five months in prison and five months under house arrest, along with a $6,000 fine, and $100,000 in restitution.
The scandal also took down Harry Parkin, the chief of staff to Mercer County's Executive, ending his career in public life. But not everyone taken down remained out of government.
In a strange twist of fate, James R. Lambert, Sr., the former leader of the Mercer County Improvement Authority, re-surfaced just a few years after his release from prison, leading a similar public agency in Pennyslvania.
There, just a few years after his release, he had apparently been hired to lead the Monroe County Waste Management Authority. Only one of the agency's board members, Richard Van Noy, who preceeded Lambert at the MCIA, knew of the Lambert's conviction when he was hired.
The criminal case also had a few other interesting connections to present day New Jersey, the least of which being that it was prosecuted by the office of then-US Attorney Chris Christie, who went on to serve as the state's Governor.
The case also involved Central Jersey Waste & Recycling, another one of Abdalla's companies at the time.
The waste hauling company has come under fire for alleged ties to organized crime, but that didn't stop the Middlesex County Improvement Authority from recently hiring them to pick up recycled waste across the county.
Abdalla was previously involved in the Ewing-based company, but no longer appears to have an interest in the waste hauler. Lambert was also given a share of the company in the corrupt scheme.
According to a 2011 report from the State Commission on Investigations, Frank Fiumefredo, Sr., a man forced out of the waste hauling industry in New York State due to his criminal record was able to take control of the company, which is now run by his two sons.
Abdalla is the brother of Paul Abdalla, the first head of the non-profit corporation known as New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO) under Mayor John Lynch, Jr., who is also a convicted felon.
Both Mercer and Middlesex Counties have long held quiet political alliances with powerful forces in Pennsylvania, where both of the Abdallas have recently been based.
Berger's decision to have Abdalla's demolition company start tearing down the iconic, dilapidated structure took some in Milltown, including the leadership of the MFARA, by surprise.
"I was as surprised as the first person when I saw the building coming down," said Richard Rydstrom, the Executive Director of the MFARA. "We're observers if you will."
But the demolition was likely inspired by the borough's leaders, who became concerned about the existing condition of the abandoned buildings and fined the owner.
The borough's Zoning/Code Enforcement Official told the Home News Tribune that Berger "was fined $10,000, which is being held in abeyance right now, providing he continues with his plan for the demolition."
"The court might have been fining him a bunch of money for the buildings being up… because of the contamination and the problems over on Ford Avenue," Rydstrom told NBToday, "He might have gotten fed up with all that."
At 7:19am on August 15, Milltown used its Nixle alert system to notify residents that the "tear down" of the massive structure was beginning.
We wanted to ask Mayor James Cahill when he first learned of Berger's plan to demolish the building, but he did not return a request for comment made through his City Hall spokesperson.
Cahill serves as the agency's official legal representative in his private capacity as an attorney.
Cahill said in an April 2015 interview with NBToday that he had been representing the MFARA for about three years.
As we reported, Cahill retired from a county government position that enabled him to start collecting a $99,000 pension while still in office.
For his part, Cahill says he doesn't see a conflict with representing MFARA at the same time he is Mayor of New Brunswick, even though MFARA has selected a Brunswick-based developer that built two of the city's tallest buildings to build another massive project on the only site it controls.
"If I did [see a conflict of interest], I wouldn't do it. I see actually the roles actually fairly identical to what they are in Milltown and New Brunswick," said Cahill.
"Don't those interests sometimes conflict?" pressed NBToday, pointing out that the interests of Milltown's residents might sometimes be at odds with what people want in the city that elected him Mayor.
"The projects are independent of each other. It would be like representing two clients who are different clients and one client wants to buy the house, and another client wants to sell the house. You can represent both people," concluded Cahill.
Berger's litigation against the borough has dragged on for more than a decade, with the MFARA also hiring the powerful Woodbridge-based law firm Wilentz, Goldman, & Spitzer.
John Hoffman, a Wilentz lawyer and close ally of the convicted former Mayor, represents the Middlesex County Improvement Authority, the Middlesex County Utilities Authority, the New Brunswick Parking Authority, and the New Brunswick Housing Authority.
For the past decade, Hoffman has also been serving as the MFARA's "special counsel" for the litigation with Berger.
While Berger, a political player in Morristown, fights against the Middlesex political machine's efforts to force him to give up his land to Boraie, a number of other issues have played out in the complicated case.
One of the key issues in the case is what the borough's obligation is to provide affordable housing, and changes in that obligation have forced the case, once closed, to be re-opened in recent years.
"What happened is they changed the affordable housing rules," Hoffman told New Brunswick Today. "We thought the case was over, so it's been re-opened."
For his part, Hoffman was not aware if the spill had been cleaned up, telling this reporter his sole focus was the litigation.
"Once that suit is resolved, then the borough can move to try to acquire the property," said Rydstrom.
News of the spill's impact on the city's drinking water supply first came from the Home News Tribune's Susan Loyer.
It was then mentioned during a brief aside at the end of the October 5 City Council meeting, by Business Administrator Thomas Loughlin III.
"You probably have heard about an oil spill in Milltown into the Mill Pond as part of the demolition that's happening over on Ford Avenue," Loughlin told the Council.
Loughlin has some experience with water: He served as Acting Water Director of the troubled utility for more than five years, during the period of time when the city's main treatment plant operator was illegally falsifying records to cover up serious problems with the drinking water being distributed.
"That is a small section of our secondary water source, and we have stopped pumping out of the Farrington Lake, and we will not resume again until we have clearance from the DEP that there is no further issue with that source of water," said Loughlin.
"It's been boomed off, there was a restoration company that was out there today," said Loughlin, noting that he was under the impression the cleanup would be completed by Friday, October 7.
But, as of November 22, the city said it still has not been given the go-ahead to resume drawing raw water from its Westons Mill pumping station.
However, the DEP says it never ordered New Brunswick Water Utility not to use the pumping station in the first place.
"DEP did not restrict the City of New Brunswick from using Westons Mill Pond for drinking water as a result of this event," said the DEP spokesperson. "New Brunswick made the decision to not use this source as they had access to an alternative source. All sampling results for PCBs that were provided to us by New Brunswick were non-detect."
On October 7, the city published a letter on its website assuring its water consumers that it was working with NJDEP, Middlesex County and "Milltown officials" to monitor the water quality.
"Blockades have been set up in the pond to contain the spill and DEP officials are working to remove the oil from soil and water in the area," reads the letter.
"The City remains committed to producing safe, high-quality water and has not received any information thus far that indicates our water supply has been compromised."
Larry Hajna, a DEP spokesperson, explained in the week following the spill that "contaminated oil, vegetation and debris" had been removed, and that "floating hoses" and a "containment boom" with special pads to absorb oil were being used in the cleanup operation.
"A majority of the oil has been removed. Crews are removing pockets of oil," Hajna said at the time.
For his part, Berger said the cleanup has since been completed and that he hopes to complete demolition of the factory site soon.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick.