Washington, DC — In the face of a string of highly-publicized breakdowns in cleanups of toxic sites, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is moving to water down groundwater cleanup standards, reduce oversight of private industry cleanup consultants, and limit enforcement, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The thrust of the changes in groundwater standards would allow the state to declare that polluted sites do not have to be cleaned up, in many cases by loosening the applicable cleanup standards ten-fold for toxic chemicals such as chromium, vinyl chloride and petroleum.
“Somebody needs to tell the DEP that it is in a hole and should stop digging,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former analyst for the state Department of Environmental Protection. “These toxic fiascoes were no accidents and will certainly recur unless the Legislature gets serious about restructuring cleanup laws and engineering a major attitude adjustment at DEP.”
Today, the Assembly Judiciary Committee begins a second round of hearings on the causes of the hazardous waste scandals and the need for statutory and policy changes, following an opening round of hearings two weeks ago.
Significantly, DEP has a number of initiatives quietly underway that appear to roll back environmental protections and increase industry influence, under the rubric of “reform,” including—
- Relaxing groundwater cleanup standards so that tainted groundwater would be left permanently polluted (“long-term management” is the DEP euphemism). The groundwater standards would be diluted by a factor of ten in cases where direct contamination of drinking water or surface waters is deemed low;
- Establishing polluter “enforcement grace periods” in hazardous waste management and cleanup programs during which DEP will forego enforcement of “minor” violations; and
- Reducing oversight of industry cleanup consultants under the “Cleanup star program”, where private consultants are allowed to investigate and cleanup properties with limited oversight.
Notwithstanding charges of becoming too close to regulated industry, conflicts of interest, and revolving door practices where former DEP Assistant Commissioners have moved to the cleanup industry, the state and industry are co-sponsoring boat tours and other promotional junkets to redevelop contaminated sites.
“DEP appears to be confused about the difference between cleaning up and covering up problems,” Wolfe added. “All of the changes that DEP is contemplating make it easier for polluters responsible for contamination to avoid cleanup responsibilities—precisely the opposite direction the State of New Jersey should be heading.”
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.