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Image courtesy of Stella Martin

Denying justice to families harmed by pollution doesn’t necessarily take high-powered attorneys, a crooked judge or a multi-national corporation. Sometimes it only takes a village. Or, in one mother’s case, a town.

In a recent interview, Stella Martin, a resident in the small hamlet in rural Catskill, NY, talks about how she has been trying for years to get local and state officials do their jobs: namely to make sure the illegal dumping next door to her home is put to an end, and that what was dumped there isn’t slowly poisoning her family.

As a result, Martin has documented most of her struggle on Facebook and YouTube where she has rallied support in her community and others dealing with similar issues elsewhere.

Some background

Martin’s story begins in December 2012 when she first started noticing trucks dumping on the property next door owned by man named Fred Edwards III who runs a small composting business there.

The dumping itself wasn’t particularly unusual, Martin said. What was odd was when it occurred. Large trucks importing yard waste would be brought to the facility next door to her home just before the break of dawn.

Given the proximity of Edwards’ property to the Martin family well, or their underground source of drinking water, she naturally had concerns about what was being trucked in. Plus the property is adjacent to state- and federally-protected wetlands.

Over time, Martin said she began seeing some disturbing things: full garbage bags being dumped into holes for burial. Large chunks of concrete and rubber and other construction debris littering in the adjacent wetlands where the lily pads and trees were slowly dying.

After years of looking for answers, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) would determine in 2015 Edwards had in fact illegally dumped, “leaves, wood chips and organic material in wetlands.”

Investigators would tell the local Daily Freeman newspaper they found, “… the trucks arriving at night were hauling organic material, including leaves and small wood products — yard wastes — from Long Island,” to turn into mulch.

According the Daily Mail, another local newspaper, an inspection in January 2015 would find things like home siding and, yes, plastic bags, buried on the property. Edwards also had not maintained the required 200-foot setback from the pond.

Reports also note in August 2013, officials found Edwards had, “dumped fill consisting primarily of dirt, brick, cinder block, asphalt, concrete, wood chips and stone, over the slope down to and into the wetland.”

In the end, a consent order would be handed down from the DEC to Edwards and $11,000 in fines were levied against him, though a large portion of the penalty — $9,000 —  would be waived so long as he complied with the clean up.

Part of the remedial work included moving the junk found in 2013 away from the wetlands, a process which involved moving a lot of dirty things with heavy machinery. At the time, Martin tried to compel area officials and regional state authorities to take a closer look at the debris.

She and her family would later learn in a devastating way her concerns were valid.

The summer of 2015 was a dry one in Greene County and as remedial efforts were underway on the Edwards property, on windy days, large plumes of dust would engulf the Martin home which could be viewed as a minor inconvenience for the sake of the clean-up, she said.

Then everyone in her house started getting sick.

Martin said her entire family would begin to lose their senses of taste and smell and have trouble breathing, but things got serious when her son began exhibiting symptoms of neurological damage such as ticks and violent seizures.

Taking matters in her own hands, Martin began taking her children to doctors and specialists in Albany, which is just shy of an hour away from her home. They determined not only was exposure to this dust affecting their health, they strongly recommended the family leave the home.  

Subsequent testing would confirm the entire family was diagnosed with exposure to toxic chemicals.

As for Martin herself, in addition to developing sores, her blood tests from May 2016 would come back showing high levels of cadmium, a heavy metal which the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says people are usually exposed to by inhaling fumes. Or dust.

Testing done by LabCorp would detect cadmium in Martin’s blood at 7.6 micrograms per liter. The Mayo Clinic says anything over 2.0 is abnormal.

“I’ve pretty much been told I need accept these are symptoms,” Martin said Friday. and “There’s really not a cure for these things, we have to wait to see what the sores turn into, and see if the kids neurological issues can heal themselves.”

Once again, Martin turned to state and area officials, the same entities responsible for issuing Edwards the permits needed to operate his business, for answers and demanded someone take a better look at the property and to see if there was anything left behind that could explain why everyone was getting sick — or at least if there was anything of concern there.

Obfuscation, denials, and a at times outright dismissals of her concerns came from not just her town government but from local officials, Martin said, and felt the people tasked protecting her and the rest of the community had better things to do.

Neither Edwards, nor the DEC Environmental Conservation Officer Martin was voicing concerns to, Sean Dewey, has not returned a request for comment. Neither Jeffrey Hammond, a representative with the state Department of Health, nor Catskill Town Supervisor Doreen Davis, returned multiple requests for comment.

Martin said she and her family are basically on their own. They have had to move out of the house due to unsafe living conditions and while Edwards has apparently said he would cease business operations at the property, that has yet to happen. To make matter’s worse, Martin said she has been punished by local authorities for speaking up, which included three other people and herself being charged with trespassing for showing the wall of debris near her property.

Finding shelter and paying for representation in court costs money, something that’s become more difficult for Martin to do overtime. Nevertheless her family, and others in her community are continuing to demand answers and justice — none of which are assured should the complacent and apathetic officials remain committed to getting nothing done.

More information on Martin’s fight and what you can do to help is available online at www.palenvillecatskilllandfill.com.

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Tyrone is a reporter from Binghamton, NY based in Syracuse, NY. focused primarily on issues related to area politics, education and the environment. When not running down under-reported stories of abuse or corruption, he will likely be found listening to loud, fast music or doing something nerdy/related to Game of Thrones.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Mankind has known for at least four thousand years (its in the Old Testament of the Bible) that mold was dangerous. In the picture you can see the pile smoking. That is aspergillus fumigatus. The reason that composting facilities need licenses is because its a threat to the quality of life and quite possibly also to peoples health if composting is done too close to peoples homes.

    That said I know nothing about this situation. I am just speaking generally..

    Inhaling mold spores and fragments (from compost) is extremely unhealthy for many people. Sometimes people will die because they were exposed to large amounts of mold spores.
    Its not common but it happens. I have a friend whose neighbor was killed by very bad mold in an apartment building.

    Article: Man dies after inhaling fungal spores from garden compost
    https://www.theguardian.com/science/2008/jun/13/medicalresearch

    There may be laws restricting what can be composted, and where. You should call your department of environmental health and get a copy of the rules that apply for their facility.

    For a web site on aspergillosis see http://aspergillus.org.uk Invasive fungal illness can and sometimes does happen in situations like that.

    Several years ago, in Long Island, in the town of Islip I think, a number of people living close to a large composting operation got very ill. Also, in Brookhaven. There used to be a web site called Compost Alert.com. You can find their web site archived here. https://web.archive.org/web/20141009183720/http://compostalert.com

    This is a paper on the problem of invasive fungal illness. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2708386/pdf/0055-08.pdf

    Fungal diseases are becoming more and more common very quickly in part because of the irresponsible use of drugs which really should not be prescribed often. And with the additional cost of a pre-existing condition potentially adding up to thousands of dollars a year in extra costs and health insurance premiums anything that potentially makes people sick must be avoided and prevented.

    Mold is everywhere in the air, in detectable amounts. Under normal conditions, people usually can resist *invasive* fungal illness, which has a high death rate. However, lots of other illnesses caused by molds are common
    see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4444319 .

    Most of us dont live near to composting piles. But to those that do, it may come with a substantial cost to health.

    Mold usually – when it makes people ill, it causes a plethora of immune system mediated issues, A common one is asthma, adult onset asthma is commonly caused by mold. Another is COPD. another is sinusitis, another is chronic fatigue.

    Mammals are currently quite naturally resistant to fungal illness but global warming, is raising the natural temperatures towards our body temperature which will be dangerous because molds evolve very very quickly. (In the past, our high body temperature was favored by evolution and we resisted fungal diseses which are much more dangerous to reptiles compared to reptiles, See “Fungi and the Rise of Mammals” by Arturo Casadevall PLoS Pathogens 8(8): http://journals.plos.org/plospathogens/article?id=10.1371/journal.ppat.1002808 )

    Unfortunately a great many things could make people much more susceptible to invasive fungal disease including many chemicals in the molds themselves.

    Increasingly common drugs that doctors prescribe to in some cases save lives, but in other cases just to save time and get the patient out the door, can make people susceptible to fungal illness. Death caused by a medical mistake is called “iatrogenic injury and its the third highest cause of death in America today)

    Simply being very young, or very old, or pregnant with a lot of hormones circulating through the body, or under a lot of stress, stress hormones suppress the immune system.

    Aspergilli produce aflatoxin, and some also produce Ochratoxin A a known carcinogen and neurotoxin. OTA can cause serious illness by inhalation. (for example, in “sick buildings”)

    People breathing in the air nearby can be made very very sick by composting. Aspergillus fumigatus produces “abundant” chemicals related to LSD, when it sporulates see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1151833/ (and other work by the authors ) Compost piles also contain a great many other unhealthy things including a pathogenic bacteria, like listeria and legionella and other potentially dangerous bacteria, which become a particular problems when the windrows are not turned regularly. Also, anerobic decomposition creates extremely nauseating smells which contain known carcinogens.

    (typically, environmental monitoring only tests for Aspergillus/Penicillium spores, total bacteria, Gram-positive bacteria, Gram-negative bacteria, actinomycetes, total particulates, endotoxin, and beta-1,3 glucans, but a significant number of other substances are of serious concern, such as MVOCs and mycotoxins, including aflatoxins, ochratoxin, macrocyclic trichothecenes, and tremorigenic mycotoxins, and ergot alkaloids)

    Decomposition of some kinds of biosolids produces far worse bioaerosols than wood alone. Grass and leaves typically produce molds like stachybotrys which produces macrocyclic trichothecenes like the satratoxins. They inhibit protein synthesis and cause apoptosis of cells that come into contact with them in a linear relationship to the dose. They can and do penetrate the skin and go into the bloodstream. Chronic exposure to these substances can cause a great many costly illnesses.

    http://www.aspergillus.org.uk/content/battle-breath-economic-burden-lung-disease

    Allergic and invasive fungal disases may be caused in part by toxic constituents of mold, combined with higly inflammatory endotoxin from bacteria. (Priming)

    The widespread use of drugs to suppress the symptoms of illnesses instead of cure them is also making *invasive* fungal disease much more common quickly.

    That is a recipe for disaster.

    Mycotoxins are poisons evolved by fungi to kill other filamentous fungi. However, because other living things like “animalia” (which we ourselves, people are) are more closely related to fungi than we are to plants we sometimes end up being collateral damage. Fungi are extremely good at producing chemicals that kill things. Many of them have proven to be extremely valuable, like antibiotics, most of which originated in fungi.

    A scientist I know who is an expert on mycotoxins told me that “we are discovering new ones (mycotoxins) all the time”.

    Another example are tremorigenic mycotoxins associated with fungi that grow in soil.
    http://aem.asm.org/content/37/1/172.full.pdf

    Mold will cause apoptosis of the neurons in the olfactory cortex, destroying the sense of smell, also mycotoxins are carried right into the brain through the olfactory nerve.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16835065 also
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27867383

    They can be detected in the body for a long time after exposure, and that exposure can be proved to have an adverse impact on health..

    In Europe the buffer zones around composting facilities are quite a bit larger than they are in most US states. We really have to wise up about the dangers posed to neighbors by these facilities. They should be enclosed and/or sited far away from communities.

  2. Great reporting, and good man.
    I sincerely thank your agency for reporting critical stories we all should see, instead of just stories others feel we can just see. I feel I’m adult enough, more then capable of choosing which type of stories and knowledge I would like to be aware of.
    Especially during this time with many growing issues, of numerous communities enduring similar situations across our Nation suffering silently. I appreciate your agency,
    Thank you

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