New Jersey Closing Its Nose to Vapor Intrusion Crisis
Vapor Intrusion Rules Cast into Regulatory Limbo as Horror Stories Multiply
Trenton — Rules seeking to accelerate indoor air sampling and provide more rapid response to toxic vapors seeping into homes, day-care centers and other buildings were recently set aside by New Jersey authorities and the new administration of Governor Chris Christie has pledged to kill them altogether, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This regulatory gap occurs as new evidence shows even more widespread contamination of groundwater and soil than previously thought and as the state moves to pick of the pace of “brownfields” redevelopment of contaminated sites.
Toxic vapor intrusion occurs as contaminants in soil or groundwater emit vapors that enter structures, typically through basements, sickening residents. As widely reported, volatile organic chemical vapors from a century-old DuPont factory have endangered over 450 homes and thousands of residents in Pompton Lakes. Residents there were outraged to learn that the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and DuPont took years to notify them of the problem and test the air in their homes.
New Jersey is one of the nation’s most contaminated states yet it still has failed to restrict high-density construction atop hundreds of underground toxic plumes. Under governors of both parties, New Jersey has pushed for quick and cheap redevelopment by merely capping contaminated plumes under old industrial sites, a practice call “pave-and-wave.” As a result, the state has been buffeted by a steady stream of lurid eco-horror stories as the chemical fumes ultimately surface.
The agency began to come to grips with the indoor exposure danger and in 2005 adopted a “Vapor Intrusion Guidance” document. That document was based on a “phased approach” – a laborious but voluntary 10-stage process in which extensive groundwater and soil sampling was required before indoor air was sampled. Huge loopholes in that guidance were exposed by the Kiddie Kollege tragedy in 2006 where 60 toddlers were poisoned by mercury vapors in a day-care center located in a contaminated former thermometer factory. It took DEP over 14 weeks to notify parents of the exposure.
Kiddie Kollege led to changes in law and DEP vapor intrusion policy. In August 2009, DEP adopted “Vapor Intrusion Guidance” revisions to speed up indoor air sampling where “sensitive receptors” were involved (day-care centers, schools, homes). Even this halting step has been reversed, however:
- On November 17, 2009, DEP withdrew its August guidance on vapor intrusion, returning to the flawed phased approach which leads to the extensive delays seen in Pompton Lakes; and
- The Christie administration Transition Report on DEP went even further, stating that vapor intrusion rules are not legally required under the Site Remediation and Reform Act and DEP should limit its rules only to cover “required elements.” If implemented, this stance would essentially repeal official Vapor Intrusion Guidance.
“New Jersey appears to be burying its head in contaminated sand,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst. “There are hundreds of contaminated groundwater cases that may be poisoning indoor air in Garden State homes, schools and day-care centers. To avoid years of delay in sampling groundwater and soil, DEP must mandate more rapid indoor air sampling and abandon the Christie Transition recommendations.”
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