EDITORIAL: State should seize Copake Valley ‘Farm’

HAVE WE GOT A DEAL for you! Imagine, 300 beautiful acres of bottomland with a trout stream and superb views of the Taconics. Within walking distance of downtown Copake and your own private entrance (kind of) from a major state highway leading to your country estate.

If your hobbies require heavy construction equipment or if you’d like your own football-field-size sauna, this residential gem has just the industrial spaces you’re looking for!
But wait, there’s more. All around you is one huge, low-maintenance lawn topped with a hefty layer of finely ground construction and demolition debris that really makes it tough for weeds–or anything else–to grow. Just remember to wear thick-soled boots and have a face mask handy whenever you stroll across this pastoral paradise. Such a place does exist, although there’s no indication that its owner, Salvatore Cascino, wants to sell it. Mr. Cascino, who owned a waste hauling company in the Bronx, has been convicted of illegal dumping at his cynically named Copake Valley Farm. He’s also racked up a string of environmental and building violations, as well as findings of criminal and civil contempt of court. His trouble with the law here stretches back more than a decade and a half. Before that he was up to similar tricks in Dutchess County.

It was 2009, the year The Columbia Paper started publication, when he was found in contempt, yet he continues to pollute his property in violation of the law and the orders of Judge Jonathan Nichols. It’s hard to find words anymore to condemn his actions and the mockery he makes of the justice system. The attempt feels like sputtering.

Now, six years after his contempt finding, he has not faced punishment more severe than new fines that, for the most part, he simply ignores. Part of the problem lies in the money Mr. Cascino spends for legal maneuvers that are his right under the law. Think of the profit someone could make if he operated a dump without a permit and no concern for state regulations.

If a federal agency determined he was a threat to national security, he’d already be locked up at some supermax prison in a place few of us could find on a map. But he’s not a terrorist. And because, in practical terms, enforcing the law comes down to choosing which cases are priorities, he keeps getting away with his bad behavior. His pollution of the land leaves Copake and the county to cope with a low level, long-term menace. And that reality may also have delayed his day of reckoning.

Let’s assume that Mr. Cascino has shielded his personal wealth in a way that will make it difficult for authorities find his money. Meantime, he’s betting that Judge Nichols is reluctant to keep a 74-year-old man like him in jail very long. Mr. Cascino says he no longer owns his Bronx waste business, so his most obvious remaining asset is Copake Valley Farm: 300 acres of polluted soil.

No wonder it’s taking so long to hold him accountable. What level of government–town, county, state or federal–wants to assume the responsibility for cleaning up this huge, illegal dumpsite? Who will pay for restoring the land if not Mr. Cascino?

The answer to the second question is taxpayers, one way or another. That’s the real crime of polluters like him. Once they profit from breaking the law they foist the bill for their poisonous mess on the public. What’s happened in Copake rips off taxpayers throughout the county and the state. The dumping continues, and it must be stopped.

Every government seizure of private property deserves to be questioned as potential threat to individual liberty, but by his defiance of the law and the risk his actions pose to public health and safety, Mr. Cascino has left the state with no way to deter him other than by seizing his land. He could reclaim Copake Valley Farm by paying to clean it up, but based on past experience he’ll probably decide instead to move on to a new community he can foul.

The longer that state government–the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Office of the State Attorney General–allow dumping to continue, the higher the cost to taxpayers and the greater the potential hazard to local residents. He doesn’t run a farm, it’s an illegal enterprise. Put a fence around it and lock the gate before it gets any worse.

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