Trenton — For the past five years, New Jersey officials have not known which are the most dangerous polluted sites in the state, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, the state cannot set cleanup priorities among the approximately 16,000 contaminated sites that pockmark New Jersey.
State law clearly directs the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to develop a cleanup priority list, but in December 2004, a DEP decision memo recommended that priority rankings be allowed “to expire” and that the department instead formulate “a new prioritization system for all sites through new rulemaking.” As the memo recommended, the state’s rankings, called the Remedial Priority System or RPS, was allowed to expire in August 2005 but no replacement was ever put in place.
According to one internal DEP staff analysis provided to PEER, the previous RPS ranking of the 100 most serious contamination cases listed sites in 17 of New Jersey’s 21 counties with Morris, Bergen and Monmouth counties containing the highest numbers.
“For a generation, the mantra of ‘worst first’ has guided our approach to addressing New Jersey’s profound toxic legacy,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst, pointing to a 1982 Spill Act provision requiring DEP to adopt a master list with a risk-based ranking for determining cleanup priorities. “New Jersey cannot have a responsible toxic cleanup program if our DEP insists upon flying blind.”
In testimony before the Senate Environment Committee back on October 23, 2006, DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson said –
“The most important thing we are doing is developing a new ranking system to prioritize sites so that we focus our resources on the worst cases, those that present the greatest risk to public health and the environment.”
Nearly a year later, no such rankings have emerged. Moreover, Ms. Jackson has not offered an expected due date for a ranking system on which her agency has supposedly worked for the past three years.
“A series of botched cleanups, contaminated schools and day-care centers and the fiasco in the Meadowlands all are prime examples of how a systematic ranking of toxic hotspots would have saved taxpayers a ton of money and lots of people loads of grief,” Wolfe added, referring to the $212 million the state loaned developers for what appears to be a toxic sinkhole. “Without a coherent priority system, development politics and not public health needs will determine who gets to the top of the list at DEP and draws state cleanup money.”
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.