Trenton — The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has quietly adopted new toxic site enforcement “Grace Period” rules barring enforcement action against toxic violations deemed “minor,” according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The rules will appear in next Monday’s New Jersey Register.
This enforcement relaxation comes in the immediate wake of highly-publicized scandals involving failure to complete toxic cleanup of sites later occupied by day-care centers, schools, and residences. The rules define as “minor” violations such core cleanup requirements as failure to submit cleanup work-plans, conduct scientifically valid sediment and groundwater sampling, or report off-site pollution migration.
The idea behind enforcement grace periods arose in 1994 as an element of former Governor Christie Whitman’s “New Jersey Is Open for Business” initiative. At the time, those policies were widely denounced as a rollback of environmental protections (dubbed a “Polluters’ Holiday”) in favor of corporate polluters.
In reviving grace period rules, current DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson offered the following rationale:
“By removing the threat of penalties for certain types of violations where compliance is achieved within the time specified, the proposed amendments will encourage the regulated community to take positive action toward achieving compliance resulting in the remediation of contaminated sites.”
“Why doesn’t New Jersey try enforcing anti-pollution laws for a change instead of spending time devising new loopholes?” asked Bill Wolfe, a former DEP official who now heads the New Jersey chapter of PEER, who has been calling for tougher enforcement of state toxic site cleanup requirements. “Our reliance on precisely this type of voluntary, polluter-controlled cleanup model is what led to recent public health fiascos, such as allowing a day-care center to operate in an old thermometer factory.”
The state DEP has acted before the inter-agency panel convened by Governor Jon Corzine finished its investigation into the mercury-laden “Kiddie Kollege” day-care scandal. In the past few weeks, other day-care centers, schools, and housing developments have been found operating on former toxic waste sites that were supposed to have been cleaned but were not.
“DEP data show virtually no enforcement of cleanup requirements and that most of the more than over 5,000 ‘voluntary cleanup agreements’ have failed to protect pubic health and the environment,” added Wolfe, whose call last month for an independent review of the toxic cleanup program was rebuffed by Gov. Corzine. “Rather than expand a program which DEP’s own data demonstrate is not working, we should dismantle this crazy voluntary incentive system for polluters in favor of something that actually produces results”
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.