Dentist charged in medical waste dumping

September 5, 2008 12:33:54 PM PDT
A Pennsylvania dentist has been charged with dumping medical waste that sullied a New Jersey beach at the height of vacation season. Authorities said Friday that Thomas McFarland took his motorboat to Townsend Inlet near Avalon on Aug. 22 and dumped a bag full of some 300 dental-type needles, along with 180 cotton swabs and other materials from his Wynnewood, Pa., medical office.

McFarland, 59, is charged with unlawfully discharging a pollutant and unlawful disposal of regulated medical waste. Each charge carries a maximum prison term of five years. Fines could total $125,000 if he is convicted on both counts.

New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram said a complaint was served on his lawyer Friday. Milgram said authorities know where McFarland is, but would not disclose his location.

Phone messages left at McFarland's Pennsylvania and Jersey shore homes were not returned on Friday. An assistant to his lawyer, Joseph Rodgers, said Rodgers would not discuss the case. A man on the property Friday at McFarland's New Jersey house declined to answer questions and told an AP reporter to go away.

Milgram would also not say whether McFarland, who turned himself in to Avalon police on Tuesday, explained why he dumped the materials.

Needles and other medical materials began washing up on Aug. 22 on the northernmost beaches of Avalon. The upscale resort town is about 25 south of Atlantic City and was recently named by National Geographic Adventure magazine as one of the nation's 10 best places to live, work and play.

The beaches where the waste was found were the ones nearest to Townsend Inlet.

The debris forced beach closings in Avalon throughout the week leading up to Labor Day weekend. In all, more than 200 syringes were picked up.

"Many people at the Jersey Shore could not enjoy one of the state's most precious natural resources, the ocean," Milgram said.

The washup was the most serious since the late 1980s, when thousands of beach-going days were lost because of waste washing ashore. That problem prompted a ban on trash dumping off the New Jersey coast. New Jersey has 127 miles of bathing beaches on the Atlantic Ocean, which comprise a large part of its $35 billion tourism industry.

The state's environmental crimes unit dug into this case and publicized that it would be able to use serial numbers on the needles to trace them back to their source. A $10,000 reward was also offered.

Milgram said investigators had narrowed down the source of the needles to a handful of offices, including McFarland's, before he showed up at the Avalon police station on Tuesday and confessed.

"Thanks to the great work down by this multi-agency team of investigators, we can say with confidence that this defendant's dental practice was the source of the medical waste on Avalon's beaches," Milgram said.

McFarland has been licensed as a dentist in Pennsylvania since 1977 and was in good standing. He lives in the same big house in the Philadelphia suburb of Wynnewood that houses his practice.

He owns a second home in the Avalon Heights section of Middle Township, N.J. There, he was a leader in an unsuccessful attempt to have his community annexed by the adjacent town of Avalon.

In the weeks since the needles began turning up in Avalon, small amounts of medical waste have been found on several other southern New Jersey beaches.

But Milgram said none of it is connected to McFarland. She said the other materials may have been found because the Avalon discoveries made people more vigilant about looking for medical waste, because of copycats or because of rough seas stirring up trash.

Milgram would not say whether there are additional investigations into any of the other finds.

David Dean, the police chief in Avalon, said the charges against McFarland should allay any beachgoer's fears about unclean oceans.

"This was the result of human agency," he said, "an intentional act - not a testament to unhealthy waters."

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