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.
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.