Trenton — The furor over a middle school contaminated with dangerous levels of pesticides demonstrates just how weak the state toxic clean-up law has become in New Jersey, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Parents were not notified of toxic waste piled in the schoolyard for more than five months because state law does not require parents or the public to be notified of either the hazardous contamination itself or how the tainted soil is then handled.
Last week, the mayor of Paramus ordered closure of West Brook Middle School after press reports about school grounds containing chlordane and other pesticides outlawed in 1980s at levels 39 times the state safety standard. Chlordane is a bio-accumulative insecticide linked to liver cancer and disruption of the nervous and endocrine systems. School officials had known about the contaminated soil since December when it was unearthed in a construction project but had decided not to disclose the situation.
The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) claims that it is investigating but state clean-up rules are so lax that school officials are under no legal obligation to notify –
- Parents of students regarding their discovery of contaminated soil on school grounds or what their plans are for addressing clean-up of that soil contamination;
- The state DEP or to get DEP approval before they conducted a clean-up. Agency rules allow “soil only” clean-ups to occur without any oversight whatsoever. The only required DEP notification is after the fact and only if the person conducting the clean-up wants a “no further action” letter certifying that the site that the site has been cleaned up; and.
- The public, including adjacent neighbors, about any aspect of the clean-up before, during, or after.
“Unfortunately in our state, key parts of the toxic clean-up program have been effectively deregulated,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former analyst with DEP. “There is no public participation in any of the decisions about toxic clean-up – by law those decisions are made solely by the responsible parties, developers, or property owners.”
Following last year’s infamous “Kiddie Kollege” case where dozens of children were exposed to mercury vapors at a day-care center inside a thermometer factory that DEP was supposed to be overseeing, the state tried to toughen toxic clean-up laws but Governor Jon Corzine insisted the problem was limited to day-care centers. In signing a reform bill primarily confined to the day-care licensing process, Gov. Corzine resisted calls from PEER and community groups to address the same fundamental flaws that also affect schools, hospitals and housing located on or near contaminated sites.
The problem is likely to recur as DEP estimates that up to 5 percent of the state’s total acreage may be impacted by the historical use of arsenical pesticides alone.
“As we have repeatedly warned, every few months another toxic scandal will erupt and state officials will again try to act as if they do not know how it could happen,” Wolfe continued. “The place to start looking for answers is in the mirror.”
Read about the problems at West Brook Middle School
See how the state response to the “Kiddie Kollege” day-care scandal missed the mark
Examine the PEER prescription for fixing New Jersey toxic clean-up program
View DEP voluntary guidelines for dealing with contaminated soil
Look at how the state is buying toxic sites on which to build new schools
Revisit the 1999 state Historic Pesticide Contamination Task Force report
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.