Trenton — The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has long been aware of significant dangers to public health and the environment from incomplete toxic cleanups and intentionally withheld a list of more than 6,000 priority risk sites, according to internal DEP memos published today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The 2004 memoranda show that top DEP officials decided to let legislatively mandated regulations for setting cleanup priorities lapse rather than publicly release critical information regarding the risks posed by redevelopment of seriously contaminated sites.
These revelations coincide with today’s hearing before the Senate Environment Committee on proposed remedies offered by the Corzine administration to the state’s troubled toxic cleanup and “brownfields” programs. These programs have come under harsh criticism due to a continuing series of high profile breakdowns, most recently the “Kiddie Kollege” debacle where more than 60 children were exposed to mercury vapors at a day-care center located inside a former thermometer factory that was supposed to be under DEP oversight.
“These documents show that that DEP knew perfectly well that tragedies like Kiddie Kollege were accidents just waiting to happen,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst, noting that agency officials also acknowledged privatization and deregulation of cleanups had caused delays and shoddy work. “Unfortunately, Governor Corzine’s proposals not only ignore the underlying causes but threaten to magnify the most glaring weaknesses.”
The Corzine plan is embodied in legislation (S2261) designed to establish indoor toxic exposure standards and prevent placement of child-care facilities on contaminated former industrial sites. Amendments adopted in the Assembly, however, have already deleted the bill’s protections against indoor residential home exposures. According to testimony delivered by PEER, the plan contains several other major flaws:
- The bill skips over existing health risks at more than 700 day care centers which are located on or within 400 feet of contaminated toxic waste sites plus as many as 100 schools located on or near toxic waste sites;
- The bill legitimizes reliance on private consultants to oversee cleanups. PEER released results of an audit of a similar program in Massachusetts showing that nearly three out of four (71%) private cleanups required follow-up work, such as retesting or additional soil removal, while nearly one in ten (9%) were so bad the private cleanup plan had to be entirely scrapped; and
- The bill completely ignores the gaping enforcement breakdowns, chronic under-funding and utter absence of involvement by local government and the public that have hamstrung past reform plans.
“It is astounding that Governor Corzine still refuses to acknowledge that DEP’s cleanup program is seriously broken and needs to be fixed,” added Wolfe, pointing to the 15 specific legislative amendments proposed by PEER to strengthen cleanup standards. “We urge the Legislature to conduct aggressive oversight and broaden the scope of legislative reforms and again call on Governor Corzine to appoint an independent investigator to conduct a complete performance review of the DEP site remediation program.”
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability.