Trenton — New Jersey state officials are deliberately ignoring mounting evidence of serious health threats to populations surrounding scores of contaminated sites, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). State sampling data show that individual cancer risks from continued presence of airborne chromium exposure to chromium may be as high as 1 in 10 at some sites the state has declared to be clean.
Zoe Kelman, a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection chemical engineer and member of the state’s official Chromium Workgroup has filed a report with the DEP Commissioner showing that harmful chromium is migrating off completed (“remediated”) sites and likely coming into direct contact with residents and workers. Ms. Kelman says the Workgroup failed to consider the work of scientific experts or to examine whether state chromium cleanup standards and “caps” are adequately protective.
These continuing failures echo the recent federal court decision in ICO v. Honeywell, where the Court found an “imminent and substantial risk” to public health in Jersey City and that industry consultants unduly influenced and delayed the DEP cleanup program. Ms. Kelman and PEER are requesting intervention by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because the state has signaled that it does not intend to comply with federal standards.
In 2004, state scientists found that state clean-up standards were deficient and significantly underestimated the health risks at chromium sites. DEP had already approved “caps” and incomplete cleanup plans at some of these sites, based on these flawed standards. Rather than accept these findings, DEP Commissioner Brad Campbell convened a “Chromium Workgroup” that included Ms. Kelman. Campbell narrowed the scope of the investigation, by directing the Workgroup not to question whether the state cleanup standards and “cap” based cleanup approach were adequate.
“In one of the many workgroup meetings in which I participated,” Ms. Kelman wrote, “a question was asked of staff members that unexpectedly touched a nerve: ‘Would you live beside one of the chromium sites that has been cleaned up using current DEP standards?’ This co-worker, who had approved many of the cleanups using these criteria, gave what seemed to be a reluctant but honest answer: ‘Probably not.’ Based on the extensive studies and data that I reviewed as part of this workgroup and afterwards, I would have emphatically answered ‘NO’ to that question. I would not expose my family to avoidable and serious health risks by living or working on or near a chromium waste site that was remediated under DEP’s current criteria.”
The basic problem with DEP’s approach is that it relies on the polluter to decide what type of incomplete “cap” “clean-up” is appropriate, without allowing the community to be made aware of or consider whether more protective alternatives, including permanent remedies, are appropriate. Legislation has stripped NJDEP of the power to order a responsible company to conduct a “feasibility study” to examine cleanup options; to conduct public hearings on those options; or to order permanent remedies that provide reliable health protections.
“Thanks to the courage and integrity of a DEP specialist speaking out, it is clear that New Jersey has abdicated its responsibility to protect the public from toxic sites,” stated Bill Wolfe, a former long-time DEP analyst. “Unfortunately, federal intervention will be necessary to make sure that this job is done right.”
The PEER-Kelman letter asks that U.S. EPA intervene to require the state to comply with the Clean Water Act, Superfund and other federal toxic waste laws that apply to the state's chromium sites.
Look at a map of chromium contaminated sites (20mb color version available upon request)