September 3, 2009
Hotel owner charged with pumping raw sewage into Hackensack River
By Scott Fallon
SECAUCUS — Hundreds of gallons of raw sewage were deliberately pumped into the Hackensack River from the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Secaucus every week for 18 months, threatening public health and the environment, authorities said Wednesday.
Staffers at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Secaucus would pump hundreds of gallons of sewage each week from a pit next to the hotel into the Hackensack River. The owner of the hotel, RD Secaucus LLC, faces millions of dollars in fines under an indictment handed up Wednesday that said workers knowingly polluted the river with sewage, chlorine and other chemicals.
“The staff of the Crowne Plaza showed a disregard for the health of the Hackensack River, of the environment, and of their neighbors,” state Attorney General Anne Milgram said. “Rather than treasuring the river that runs so close to their hotel, they unlawfully chose to treat it like a sewer.”
The hotel was mentioned in the recent federal corruption complaint against former Mayor Dennis Elwell, but the two cases are not connected. Elwell talked about the hotel’s sewage problems while being taped by an FBI informant posing as a hotel developer, according to a federal criminal complaint.
State authorities were made aware of the sewage problem in late May by Bill Sheehan, leader of the environmental group Hackensack Riverkeeper, who said he received a tip about the pumping from a hotel worker.
From January 2008 to June 2009, hotel staff would lower a pump into a grate-covered pit next to the hotel where wastewater collected. They would then drag a hose across grass put it into the river, authorities said.
“I was told they had a regular schedule — Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” Sheehan said. “You would clean the place out after the weekend, do it again mid-week and then again on Friday.”
State investigators executed a search warrant on June 8 at the hotel at 2 Harmon Plaza, which sits between the Hackensack River and Meadowlands Parkway in an office complex just south of Route 3. They took samples of wastewater that had collected in a grate-covered pit next to the hotel and seized records. Laboratory tests showed sewage and other pollutants in the samples.
That same day the Department of Environmental Protection ordered the hotel to cease pumping wastewater from the pit.
Authorities could not say why one of the more upscale hotels in the region would allegedly dispose of its sewage this way.
A spokesman for the Crowne Plaza denied any wrongdoing and said the hotel has been cooperating with authorities.
The water in the pit comes from rain and groundwater, not sewage from the hotel, said Richard Lavinthal, the spokesman. The hotel installed new pumps to push the pit’s water into the sewer system after the hotel was raided in June.
“Today’s indictment is a major disappointment to every one of us at working the hotel, since we’ve been cooperating with the authorities at every turn,” said Lavinthal, who would not take questions. “At trial we believe a jury, when informed of all the facts, will determine that the state’s prosecution is without a sound basis.”
RD Secaucus LLC, which has owned the Crowne Plaza since December 2004, was charged with third-degree unlawful discharge of a pollutant in violation of the New Jersey Water Pollution Control Act.
The act calls for a maximum $75,000 fine for each act, which could put the total fine in the millions.
The Crowne Plaza’s parent company is Rosdev, a development company in Montreal. No individuals were named in the indictment. The case will be heard in Hudson County.
The hotel recently came up in recorded discussions between Elwell and government informant Solomon Dwek, during the FBI’s vast investigation into government corruption and money-laundering.
At a meeting on July 17 in his office, Elwell told Dwek that he was meeting later that day with the manager of a hotel that had a “major problem” with its sewers and was being scrutinized by the state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, according to the federal complaint against Elwell.
Elwell said the hotel’s owner might be persuaded to sell to Dwek, according to the federal complaint.
Less than a week after the meeting, Elwell was arrested along with 43 others, including two mayors, two state legislators and other public officials in a wide-ranging corruption and money-laundering sting. Elwell was charged with accepting a $10,000 cash bribe from Dwek.
Elwell’s attorney Tom Cammarata said he was unaware of any investigation into the hotel.
“It really has nothing to do with the charges against Mayor Elwell,” he said. “It’s not relevant to our situation.”
The indictment against the Crowne Plaza comes just four months after owners of another Meadowlands business — the Waterfront Café in Carlstadt — were fined $15,000 for allowing raw sewage into the waterway for three years on top of $33,000 in DEP fines. The owners had pleaded guilty to a fourth degree violation of the state Water Pollution Control Act, state officials said.
“When indictments like this go out and names a company that is otherwise a good corporate citizen, it make others think twice about disregarding the pollution laws,” Sheehan said. “We want people to know that we’re out there making sure this doesn’t happen.”