By Ed Runyan
In late 2007, after the Geauga Trumbull Solid Waste Management District started its new environmental-enforcement division to stop littering and opening dumping, board members said it appeared some of the police officers they had hired were not taking the job seriously.
More than three years later, board members are wondering whether the problems are throughout the legal system, including prosecutors and judges.
“Sometimes there’s a lack of cooperation with the prosecutor’s office and the judges taking action,” said Robert Villers, executive director of the agency, located on Enterprise Drive in Warren and best known for its recycling activities.
Frank Migliozzi, director of environmental health for the county health department, said it’s troubling that in too many instances, the health department is referring cases to Capt. Harold Firster, environmental officer with the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office, “and we’re not hearing anything.”
A health-department sanitarian returns to the location later, and the problem is still there.
District funds pay all or part of the salary of Firster, Detective Pat Marsico of the Warren Police Department and Deputy Mike Matsik of the Geauga County Sheriff’s Office.
The district is paying $75,410 this year toward Marsico’s salary and benefits, $73,139 toward Firster’s and $20,000 for part of Matsik’s salary. Money to fund the district comes from dumping fees paid by trash haulers.
Bob Stahl, a Warren representative to the district, said the district “isn’t getting its money’s worth” out of the enforcement work done by Marsico.
Migliozzi said his department and Firster investigate a large number of complaints, and Firster writes citations if the polluter doesn’t clean up the problem, but in many cases “the courts don’t seem to accept that.”
Villers agreed, adding, “Sometimes the prosecutor doesn’t want to prosecute it.”
Migliozzi said the district brought on police officers because they have additional investigative powers that health-department employees don’t have. Firster could be filing charges against dumpers by investigating trash and identifying the perpetrator, but Firster doesn’t seem to do that enough, Migliozzi said.
Firster could not be reached to comment.
Chuck Morrow, assistant county prosecutor, said in general, putting polluters in jail “doesn’t ultimately get the site cleaned up.”
Morrow added, “If you’re giving a good-faith effort to clean this up, we’re going to continue to work with them.”
The county health department receives about 500 dumping complaints per year, officials said.
More evaluation will need to be done in the coming months, but with all of the obstacles being encountered, Villers said he’s wondering if the district should revert to its former methods of environmental enforcement — giving its funds to the health departments and asking them to write violation notices.
District officials had hoped police officers would be more effective in stopping dumping than health department officials because of the threat of court action.
“Is it cost-effective to continue with this program or are we wasting our time?” Villers asked.
“Yes,” said Dr. James Enyeart, county health commissioner. “We’ve talked ourselves blue in the face. It’s just an inefficient way. Common pleas courts, municipal courts and different jurisdictions. I believe if there was an environmental court, it would be different.”
Enyeart proposed creation of an environmental court in Trumbull County a couple of years ago — an idea used successfully elsewhere, he said — but the idea fizzled.
Villers said the case of Edgar Knieriem Jr. of Maryland demonstrates the problem of prosecuting alleged dumpers. Knieriem was charged with open dumping, a felony, in March 2009 because steel “swarf” he stores at his Diversified Resources facility in Champion was being exposed to the elements, creating an alleged environmental hazard.
Last month, Judge Andrew Logan of Trumbull County common pleas court, Knieriem and Morrow agreed that a trial in the case could be pushed back until at least Aug. 29, to give Knieriem more time to clean up the “swarf.”
Villers says the extra time indicates a lack of determination to stop the dumping.
Judge Logan said he cannot comment on the Knieriem matter because it is a pending case.
Morrow said he can’t talk specifically about the case either.