Trenton — The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has yet to issue any fines or penalties for failures to comply with a 1995 cleanup order, and for other actions that led to poisoning at least 20 children in the mercury-contaminated “Kiddie Kollege” day-care center, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Even when DEP knew that children inhabited the highly contaminated site, it negotiated for weeks with the building’s owner before warning parents and finally requesting its voluntary closure.
In April of this year, when DEP first learned that the mercury-contaminated Accutherm site it had assumed was abandoned was, in fact, occupied by a day care center, it did not inform the parents or the day care operator, or take other steps to remove the children from the building. Instead, DEP quietly began negotiations with the building’s owner, Jim Sullivan Inc., seeking to enter into a voluntary site cleanup agreement. Nearly three months went by before DEP notified parents (on July 28th) that their children were exposed to high levels of mercury vapors.
Even now, after extensive public outrage about the case, DEP is negotiating a “consent order” as the means to induce a final cleanup of the former thermometer factory. Rather than assuming control of the site cleanup in the Kiddie Kollege case, DEP, instead, on August 14, 2006, proposed an Administrative Consent Order (ACO) to govern DEP oversight of Jim Sullivan Inc.’s private cleanup of the site. Under an ACO, cleanup consultants employed by Jim Sullivan Inc. would conduct the site sampling, remedial investigation, and craft cleanup plans for the site. DEP would merely oversee – with no community involvement in selecting the cleanup plan – the private cleanup of the Kiddie Kollege site, which includes a highly contaminated building as well as soil and groundwater contamination.
Nonetheless, Jim Sullivan Inc. has still refused to enter into a consent order with DEP or post $500,000, the inadequate funding DEP requested as financial assurance for cleanup. Despite Sullivan’s track record and this recalcitrance, the agency remains unwilling to proceed without the agreement of the violator.
Under the state Spill Compensation and Control Act (Spill Act) DEP is authorized to issue enforcement fines and take over public control of the cleanup of the site. After cleanup, DEP is empowered to pursue damages and obtain treble cost recovery (three times the DEP’s cleanup costs). But the DEP has been reluctant, even phobic, about using these tougher tools.
The absence of financial reserves in the state’s public cleanup account has made the DEP unwilling to front cleanup costs, even if those costs will be recovered three times over. Industry insiders know about DEP’s unwillingness or inability to proceed with publicly-financed cleanups and hold out for negotiated deals that are more in their, but not the public’s interest.
“New Jersey only cleans up contaminated sites with the consent of the polluter – how nuts is that?” asked New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, who has been pressing for a complete overhaul of the DEP toxic remediation program. “If the Kiddie Kollge scandal cannot produce meaningful reform, then heaven help us because we apparently cannot help ourselves.”
Governor Jon Corzine has rebuffed PEER’s call for a systematic independent transparent review of the DEP cleanup program and has instead proposed tighter day-care licensure standards.
“The Governor apparently either does not understand or does not want to understand the scope of the problem,” Wolfe added. “Addressing this problem through day-care standards is like proposing to end a string of taxi-cab robberies by tightening livery licenses.”
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.