Trenton – With the sudden resignation of the state Attorney General, the investigation into what went wrong at the mercury-laden “Kiddie Kollege” day-care site should be taken over by Inspector General Mary Jane Cooper, according to a letter sent today to Governor Jon Corzine by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The group also released an internal “vulnerability assessment” prepared in 2002 showing that top agency officials had been aware of program deficiencies for years.
“These problems have been falling through the cracks for too long,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, arguing that the abrupt departure of Attorney General Zulima Farber may set adrift the nascent inquiry into how a day-care center came to be housed in an abandoned thermometer factory. “If we do not want to see this type of debacle recur, it is crucial that the underlying policy, regulatory, and program weaknesses be identified – and that is a job for the Inspector General.”
PEER points to the job that the Inspector General performed last year at the request of then-Acting Governor Richard Codey to get to the bottom of the scandal which rocked the state’s $8.6 billion School Construction Corporation (SCC) program. The resultant report detailed systematic mismanagement and led to a series of management and policy reforms at the troubled SCC.
Similarly, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) seems to be staggering from scandal to scandal. Today’s scandals have roots in long-festering problems, as indicated by a confidential internal DEP “Vulnerability Assessment” review of the troubled site cleanup program conducted by former DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell in February 2002. This candid inside look shows a long-standing awareness of serious flaws, including –
- Virtually non-existent enforcement of cleanup requirements at more than 10,000 sites. More than 5,0000 of those sites were enrolled in the failed “Voluntary Cleanup Program” in which un-enforced voluntary agreements led to incomplete cleanups, delays, and poor performance that completely bypassed any local or community involvement;
- In excess of 6,000 known groundwater contamination cases. More than 90% of these tainted groundwater sites are not being actively cleaned up but instead sit un-reclaimed in a status euphemistically titled “passive remediation;” and
- DEP intentionally kept secret the “risk rankings” for all the toxic sites, on the questionable grounds that information about abandoned sites was “enforcement sensitive.” This action kept the public and local officials in the dark about the severity of toxic problems in their neighborhoods.
“If ever a program needed a thorough, top-to-bottom performance review from an Inspector General, it is the DEP toxic site remediation program,” Wolfe added, noting that any such review need not interfere with any criminal investigations that the Attorney General’s office may choose to conduct. “What our communities desperately need is a set of reform recommendations to the Governor that will cure the pervasive failures revealed by the Kiddie Kollege outrage.”
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.