Washington, DC — The discovery of toxic mercury vapors in a day-care center built on the site of a former thermometer factory last week is just the latest in a series of toxic scandals to rock New Jersey. A weak state law and political pressure to quickly re-develop old toxic sites, called brownfields, make such events “an accident waiting to happen,” according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
More than 30 children, ranging in ages from 8 months to 3 years, were exposed to toxic mercury vapors at the Kiddie Kollege day-care center in Franklinville, New Jersey. The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Department of Health issued a joint closure order for the center on July 28th following indoor air sampling which detected mercury vapors.
The reason that the state conducted the air sampling is not clear. Contrary to earlier public statements by DEP, the sampling was not “random” and must have been prompted by a complaint or a file review at DEP indicating that this site had slipped through bureaucratic cracks. The day-care center is housed in an abandoned thermometer manufacturing plant operated by the now-bankrupt Accutherm Corp.
The mercury-tainted day-care center is only the latest in a series of recent embarrassing state pollution breakdowns. This spring, PEER exposed a scheme by the state to purchase land and build a high school on a highly contaminated former Manhattan Project site in Union City with DEP approval. The former uranium processing facility is one of as many as 200 contaminated sites that DEP had expedited for school construction. In prior months, there have been several other toxic scandals.
“What is going on in New Jersey is both unbelievable and to be expected from its deliberately anemic toxic cleanup laws,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst. “There are likely hundreds more ticking toxic time bombs out there that have been re-developed with DEP’s blessings.”
The Kiddie Kollege day-care site was under a 1995 DEP cleanup order. Rather than enforcing state cleanup requirements, DEP referred the site to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which completed its review in 1996. In drinking water and groundwater sampling done between 1999 and 2002, DEP found extensive mercury groundwater contamination at over 18 wells in Franklin Township (location of the Accutherm facility) with unknown sources.
Ultimately, the site apparently was taken off the DEP's “Known Contaminated Sites List” which requires that DEP issue a “No Further Action” letter which certifies complete cleanup of a site. DEP is refusing to release records concerning the site, citing an ongoing investigation by the state Attorney General.
“It is vital that any investigation look beyond the circumstances leading up to the closure of the Kiddie Kollege day-care center,” Wolfe added, arguing that the entire state toxic cleanup program needs a serious overhaul. “”If this case does not fuel meaningful reforms, I do not know what will.”
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.