Nearly four years after construction debris processor and contractor Joseph Karolys delivered contaminated fill to 10 Church Road in Woodstock, the Woodstock Environmental Commission (WEC) issued a scathing rebuke of what it calls the town’s lack of action. Residents downhill from the site are still dealing with the aftermath.
Frank and Pam Eighmey of 59 Reynolds Lane were told they shouldn’t drink or cook with the water from their well, so they purchased a water cooler and regularly bought large water bottles. Frank Eighmey also took out a loan to pay for a lawyer to protect his family property.
The fill started coming to Vincent and Gina Conigliaro’s property at 10 Church Road in fall 2019, and that’s when the saga began to unfold.
The Eighmeys alerted town supervisor Bill McKenna. By January 2020, then-building inspector Ellen Casciaro examined the fill, suspecting it contained construction debris — which is illegal to bury or dispose of in Woodstock. McKenna observed the same. McKenna and Casciaro both said on subsequent visits that the debris had been covered, making it difficult to issue a violation.
Casciaro eventually ordered Conigliaro to come up with a plan to build a retaining wall to hold back the fill, which had become unstable. But by then it was too late. In June 2020, washouts brought rocks and debris hurtling down the hill and onto the Eighmeys’ driveway and back yard.
“And the big one, where it washed right down my driveway, and I had to take my tractor and push it off my walkway. That was August 4 of 2020,” Frank Eighmey said. “I called Bill [McKenna]. I said, You better get up here right now. ‘Cause I drove home, I drove through the stuff coming up my driveway that afternoon. And Ellen [Casciaro] showed up, and waded through it and took a video.”
Since then, nothing has been done, the Eighmeys say. “Not a single thing has been done except it’s gotten worse because he has agreed to Vincent’s nonsense plan,” Frank Eighmey said.
The plan Conigliaro submitted to the town involves re-grading the hill behind the Eighmeys’ home, sifting through the fill, and removing anything that doesn’t belong there.
“Vince [Conigliaro] came up with a plan based on the dirt samples to remove all the fill from the side of the house facing the Eighmeys, and bring that back to a natural grade,” McKenna said. “He would sift out and remove the construction debris, which is not permitted to be buried or dumped in Woodstock, and he’ll have that trucked off to an appropriate site. And then the rest of the fill, he’ll level in an appropriate manner on the other side of the house, away from any of the property owners.”
The soil was tested. The results showed nothing particularly alarming, according to McKenna.
“There were a couple that were marginal, that the experts believe probably came (from) chemicals leached from asphalt, which we know there’s asphalt up there, and which leach from or blacktop roads as well. So it’s not a totally uncommon thing,” he said. “The water testing came back. They do have an issue with coliform, which may or may not be related to the dumping of the dirt. I know that my own well up there has always had coliform in it.”
Frank Eighmey said his well never had coliform before all this happened.
WEC: Town shirking responsibilities
“While the WEC does not seek to dive into the past, it is clear from the beginning this has been a preventable environmental disaster. In allowing the approximately 2800 cubic yards of contaminated fill to continue to sit at 10 Church Road now going into its fourth year, the town government continues not to live up to its responsibilities to ensure the health and safety of Woodstock residents,” WEC chair Alex Bolotow wrote in a March 17 letter to McKenna and the town board, citing an October 2020 resolution requiring the town to hire and pay for an independent agency to test the water and the contaminated fill that landed at 59 Reynolds Lane each quarter for one year, then annually for up to three years.
In its letter, the WEC recommends a survey of 10 Church Road and adjacent properties showing the location of the contaminated fill, plus immediate implementation of a groundwater sampling and analysis and immediate remediation and stabilization of 10 Church Road.
It also recommends the town “enter onto such land and remove such non-complying fill and restore the land to an appropriate and safe state, and charge the cost and expense of such action against the owner, and establish a lien against the land in the manner herein provided.”
The option was made available to the town after Gina Conigliaro and Karolys pleaded guilty to illegal dumping in February 2022. Similar charges against Vincent Conigliaro were dropped in exchange for his cooperation.
Gina Conigliaro and Joseph Karolys initially faced more than 200 counts, but were allowed to plead guilty to one count.
At the time, McKenna said the conviction would enable the town to hire its own contractor to do the cleanup and to levy the cost on Conigliaro’s taxes. The single counts carried a fine of $1500 each.
“We walked out of court, and he [McKenna] says, ‘This is a slam dunk. Now the town can move forward, remove the material. It’ll get levied back on his taxes, this’ll all be done.’ Well, guess what? That was January 2020, the last promise. So here we are,” Frank Eighmey said. “He’s trying to slither out of this like a snake because he let it happen. Why would you side with the criminal instead of the honest taxpaying people that you’re here to protect?”
If Conigliaro doesn’t keep up with his end of the deal, McKenna said the town can take over the cleanup. McKenna believes that without the conviction and court permission, to spend taxpayer funds on private property is a violation of the state constitution.
“I anticipate that if, worst-case scenario, if Vince has not substantially completed this by the end of the spring, my recommendation to the town board will be to go back to court and seek permission to go in there and clean it up and bill it on his taxes,” McKenna said. “But again, we live in a local country of laws. We can’t just go on other people’s property and do what we think needs to be done. There’s a process here, and if he is moving the ball forward, we have to assume that he’s going to carry it out.”
Fox guarding the henhouse?
The latest plan is to let the property owner clean up the mess. While the Eighmeys find this unacceptable, McKenna makes a case for giving the guilty party the opportunity to make things right.
“The issue is that we live in a land of laws, and as long as he’s making a good-faith effort we don’t have a right to interfere. He has a right to clean it up,” McKenna said. “We have a right to go in and clean it up if he refuses to. As long as he continues forward motion, we have to assume and take him at his word that he’s going do good on it. And again, he’s been making forward motion, but slowly, to getting this taken care of.”
While Conigliaro’s contractor will be doing the work, the town will oversee it through the building department and through its contracted engineer, Brinnier & Larios.
“In some ways I see Vince as a victim here. His wife was the one that engineered all this and was dealing with the contractor. Yeah, and he was off working in Vegas or somewhere. So it’s his responsibility to clean up, but so far he’s done what we’ve asked him to do,” McKenna said. “He presented a plan. The Eighmeys’ expert made some recommendations with regard to the testing, and the town engineer said, ‘Yes, absolutely, that makes sense.’ So we insisted that Vince conform to those requirements. He did. The DEC has looked at it. Dennis [Larios] has looked at it. Their experts looked at it. Nobody sees anything earth-shattering.”
Threat to town aquifer?
McKenna also argued against the neighbors’ contention the contaminated fill was poisoning the town aquifer. While the runoff from 10 Church Road makes its way into the Sawkill Creek, that body of water does not directly feed the aquifer, he said. He calls claims to the contrary irresponsible.
“We’ve gotten multiple calls this week from people that have been scared. It’s just not happening,” he said. “Our wells are only very indirectly affected by the Sawkill Creek, and that’s been borne out in testing of our wells.”
Karolys, now facing first-degree manslaughter charges in the death of David “Mickey” Myer, has also come under scrutiny of state environmental officials for hauling and accepting construction and demolition debris. A May 2019 raid of his Saugerties properties found 39 violations of clean-water and solid-waste laws.
A late March DEC lawsuit cited 29 waste haulers and brokers for dumping at Karolys’ Route 212 location. The companies violated state law by transporting more than 3000 truckloads of construction debris from the New York City area to the Saugerties site.