Trenton — A series of highly publicized lapses in the Department of Environmental Protection oversight of toxic waste cleanups in New Jersey underscores the need to immediately strengthen the law, according to testimony delivered today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) before a joint session of the Assembly Judiciary and Environment Committees.
Today’s hearing will investigate the most recent embarrassment in which toxic PCB-laden demolition waste and contaminated soils from the cleanup of the closed Ford manufacturing site in Edison wound up at least eleven residential construction sites throughout central New Jersey. Legislators pledged to explore ways to prevent similar episodes from recurring, even as criminal probes get underway in the Ford case.
“With good reason, communities are losing confidence in the state’s ability to protect public health and the environment,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe. “New Jersey’s cleanup laws have been weakened to promote development, shutting the public out of the process and leaving residents feeling that the government protects polluters and developers, instead of their communities.”
In the 1990’s, state cleanup laws were relaxed to reduce cleanup costs, scale back Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) oversight, and privatize and expedite cleanup decisions, allegedly as incentives to spur brownfields redevelopment. Over the last year, DEP’s cleanup program has come under increasing fire across the state:
- A series of investigative news articles exposed scientific fraud in setting chromium cleanup standards followed by a DEP whistleblower’s report confirming those problems;
- Mercer County communities recently were outraged upon learning that DEP failed to detect and withheld information on massive contamination at the W.R. Grace and American Standard plant in Hamilton and at the Martin Luther King-Jefferson Elementary School in Trenton. Hamilton Mayor Glen Gilmore remarked, “We’re a community that’s been dumped on and lied to.”; and
- In a Jersey City chromium case, a federal judge expressed no confidence in the agency’s oversight, concluding, “The evidence demonstrates a substantial breakdown in the [DEP] agency process that has resulted in 20 years of permanent cleanup inaction”.
To address these flaws, PEER is calling upon the Legislature to amend statutes in order to:
- Restore DEP’s power to select the appropriate cleanup plan, rather than having the polluter choose the cleanup method;
- Increase reliance on complete permanent cleanups while reducing reliance on merely covering highly contaminated soil with caps on site;
- Abandon the failed voluntary cleanup program;
- Impose cradle-to-grave management requirements for contaminated soils and demolition waste;
- Prohibit any “beneficial reuse” of contaminated materials in residential areas;
- Establish a DEP monitoring presence on scene during active critical stages of the cleanup process;
- Raise spill act surcharges and oversight fees, which have been cut by 50 percent;
- Expand community relations outreach efforts at major cleanup and redevelopment sites; and
- Assure meaningful public participation in cleanup and redevelopment decisions.
“We are simply recommending that the Legislature put teeth back into a law that was de-fanged,” Wolfe added. “It is time to restore public confidence in DEP, strengthen our cleanup laws, and send a clear message that government is on the right side.”
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.