Trenton – A scheme to purchase land and build a high school on a highly contaminated former Manhattan Project site in Union City was not vetoed by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Instead, the former uranium processing facility is one of as many as 200 contaminated sites that have been expedited for school construction under a secret “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) between the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the state’s Schools Construction Corporation (SCC). State officials have refused to disclose the list of all known contaminated school sites purchased by the SCC and reviewed by DEP under the MOU agreement.
The full extent of environmental and financial malfeasance that has engulfed the $8 billion program, one of the nation’s largest public works programs, now appears to be finally dawning on top aides to Governor Jon Corzine. Earlier warnings sent by PEER, including one sent as late as February 9, 2006, that the agreement between DEP and SCC should be rescinded appear to have fallen on deaf ears.
“For an environmental agency to look the other way at putting a public school on a contaminated Manhattan Project site shows just how corrupt things are in New Jersey,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, noting that the Union City school construction fell through only because SCC ran out of funds rather than from environmental objections. “We would hope that the Corzine administration would wake up and realize that not only SCC, but DEP and its pathetic site remediation program, need more than cosmetic measures; they require major surgery.”
Today PEER released both a copy of the “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) between the SCC and DEP and an analysis detailing major flaws in DEP oversight, failures in ambient monitoring of schools at known contaminated toxic waste sites, acquisition of contaminated land, and breakdowns in school site cleanups. In addition, the MOU lacked any public involvement or opportunity for independent review of the school siting decisions.
In June 2005, DEP reviewed the Union City site but failed to object to the site selection. In March 2006, an expedited review of SCC management ordered by Gov. Corzine also failed to highlight environmental problems. One year ago, the New Jersey Inspector General issued a scathing report finding lax oversight had led to a series of major failures, triggering suspension of construction.
“Huge sums of taxpayer funds dedicated for the education for New Jersey’s most disadvantaged children have instead been spent in a way that needlessly put children and educators at risk,” added Wolfe. “We again urge Governor Corzine to adopt a public site selection process so that parents and educators are informed and involved and that known toxic waste sites are only an option of the very last resort”
PEER is also urging that work at contaminated locations already under constructions be halted and that permanent cleanups, as well as design or construction changes, are immediately adopted to address toxic contamination. For those sites where schools are already built, PEER is advocating that parents and educators are notified and that additional cleanup measures and monitoring take place immediately.
NJ 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.