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Environmental crimes task force investigating illegal dumping behind former Kmart

Posted at 5:43 PM, Oct 22, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-22 18:00:53-04

The New York-based property owner of a former Kmart store on Cleveland’s west side has installed a temporary fence in hopes of curbing the pervasive problem of illegal dumping on the property. The problem was underscored Friday when someone left behind a heaping pile of crushed asphalt. The open dumping of the asphalt is being investigated by the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Environmental Crimes Task Force, which has been looking into previous open dumping cases on the property earlier this year.

While covering the illegal dumping problems on the property last Friday, News 5’s cameras captured on video two men in a rented dump truck trying to enter the rear of the property. The dump truck was full of large chunks of asphalt, which was of similar color to a giant pile of crushed asphalt that had been dumped on the property earlier in the day. Upon seeing News 5’s cameras, the driver of the dump truck put the vehicle in reverse and drove away.

While it is unclear what the two men intended on doing with the crushed asphalt, Sgt. Andrew Ezzo, the supervisor of the Environmental Crimes Task Force, said the video leaves very little doubt.

“Timing is everything. You’re able to catch a vehicle coming in here and dumping with no permission whatsoever and get the license plate too. It’s awesome. This gives us something to go on,” Sgt. Ezzo said. “We have somebody to talk to now. If nobody called or you didn’t catch it, we would have never known who did it.”

On Monday morning, crews that were hired by the out-of-state property owners erected a temporary fence shutting off the back alley of the property, which is where a majority of the open dumping and loitering has been taking place. Employees told News 5 that they have cleaned up the property on three separate occasions in recent months after people had illegally dumped trash, building debris and other refuse on the property. One of the cleanup operations happened earlier this month and required a 30-foot dumpster.

Neighbors and surrounding business owners have long lamented about the condition of the property ever since the Kmart folded late last year. In the months since, the property has been a hotbed for open dumping. A band of homeless people have also set up a camp in the landscaping at the back of the lot. Officials of the nearby VFW post said the former Kmart property poses potential safety issues.

“It being a VFW, a lot of our members are older and in their 70s and 80s even,” said Paul Weaver. “They bring their wives up here and they get scared when they see these people near the parking lot. Then we also have our [bartenders]. They come out to empty the trash at the end of their shift and they also go out to their car. They just don’t like to see the people around because they just don’t know who they are or what they could do.”

The Environmental Crimes Task Force was created in 2013 amid a growing number of cases of open dumping throughout Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. The unit works closely with the Ohio EPA and handles the criminal side of enforcing environmental law, including the regulation of scrapyards, precious metals, and open dumping.

“We had well over 5000 dumping sites that the city was cleaning up in 2014,” Sgt. Ezzo said. “Because of that they put the task force together and daily we’re taking a chunk out of it and bringing those numbers down."

Sgt. Ezzo, who has led the unit since its inception, said open dumping cases like those behind the former Kmart are especially frustrating, considering how relatively inexpensive it is to properly dump building debris at a city facility. Sgt. Ezzo said he takes his work personally.

“That definitely motivates us. I personally live in the city. I have my own motivation because I live int he city and I don’t want to see this happen,” Sgt. Ezzo said. “Nobody wants to see it happen in their front yard or anything. My biggest problem or issue is when we see these people come in from other cities to dump in Cleveland and they think it’s okay. We’ll its not okay.”

Sgt. Ezzo said many of his unit’s investigations are prompted by citizen complaints, which serve as the backbone for the task force.

“People don’t understand the penalty in the law,” Sgt. Ezzo said. “The open dumping of solid wastes is a two to four-year sentence and or a $10,000 to $25,000 fine. The judge has to impose one, the other or both. It’s mandatory. Ohio law basically states if we cannot find the individual that actually created the dump, then the owner is responsible. The owner is also responsible for stopping the problem. Even though the owner cleaned it up or has somebody clean it up they have to prevent it from happening as well.”

Sgt. Ezzo said the construction of the temporary fence on Monday morning is an important first step. Company officials from the New York-based owner of the property have reportedly vowed to install a more permanent solution. The property is available for lease again with Kmart’s parent company filing for bankruptcy last week.