Trenton — The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is refusing to release a copy of an agreement with the Chemistry Council regarding relaxation of DEP oversight of chemical plant safety on the grounds that “disclosure would materially increase the risk or consequences of potential acts of sabotage or terrorism,” according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The unprecedented result is that a State agreement governing oversight of its largest industries is wholly shielded from public view as a state secret.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Jersey residents are at risk in the event of a catastrophic chemical release. These risks have prompted both gubernatorial candidates to focus on threats posed by chemical plants, and the adequacy of state oversight of chemical plant operations and domestic terrorism plans.
“DEP has secretly negotiated a voluntary memorandum of agreement with the chemical industry that privatizes chemical plant safety and security while cloaking the whole thing in a bogus claim of anti-terrorism,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, who filed the public records request earlier this month. “Precisely because chemical plant security is vital to the health of New Jersey residents, a ‘just trust us’ response is not going to cut it.”
In February, a coalition of 67 environmental, community and labor organizations, including all the major unions representing New Jersey chemical workers, asked acting Governor Richard Codey not to sign the agreement with the Chemistry Council. While DEP denies that is has “an executed Memorandum of Agreement” with the Chemistry Council, it admits that it has some form of an agreement that it will not divulge.
DEP also is refusing to produce other documents related to meetings and correspondence between the agency and industry groups. The role of the chemical industry in DEP decisions was questioned as a result of a Chemistry Council letter and power point presentation to DEP, obtained by PEER, regarding secret meetings with industry lobbyists that convinced DEP to kill proposed toxic water quality standards. Heightening these concerns, according too recent news accounts, industry lobbyists have bragged about private access to DEP leadership and how accommodating DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell has been in adopting 12 of their 15 recommended policy initiatives.
“This chemical plant sweetheart deal and the abandonment of toxic water quality standards are just the most recent examples of how Commissioner Campbell gives corporate players private entrée to cut self-serving deals at public expense,” added Wolfe who is a long-time former DEP employee. “The people’s business ought to be done in the open, not behind closed doors in the Commissioner’s suite.”
PEER will appeal the DEP denial as a violation of the Open Public Records Act.
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.