Trenton — After New Jersey spent nearly $330 million to purchase environmentally contaminated lands found to be “patently unsuitable” for schools, a reform task force commissioned by Governor Jon Corzine proposed no reforms to prevent the recurrence of similar fiascos, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Instead, the Interagency Working Group on School Construction, created this past February, recommended that affected agencies hold “another symposium.”
“I have never heard of punting on first down until I read this report,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, who had exposed a secret agreement between the Schools Construction Corporation (SCC) and the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to expedite the environmental review of contaminated school sites resulting in plans to acquire a radioactive former Manhattan Project site in Union City and a Superfund site in Gloucester City. “Incredibly, this ‘Working Group’ decided to do no work on children’s health protection and environmental cleanup standards.”
Despite a scathing 2005 report by the Inspector General finding lax oversight and tough press statements of Scott Weiner, head of the SCC, the Working Group report avoids dealing with troubled school siting policies, such as whether the state should continue buying contaminated lands, including Superfund sites, for schools, and instead recommends:
“While specific [legislative] amendments can and should be developed to address these topics now, we recommend that the SCC and the DOE [Department of Education] host another symposium focused on land acquisition to be held within the next 60 days so that ideas emanating from the symposium can be considered in any proposed statutory amendments.”
The report does stress recovery of public funds spent on cleanup of polluted lands, but eschews suggesting new policies to prevent these mistakes. For example, the report –
- Claims that contaminated lands are “unanticipated pollution,” an odd finding in that SCC knowingly acquires contaminated land and sites schools on toxic land. Any pollution should have been discovered by due diligence and DEP environmental reviews;
- Ignores inadequate “expedited” environmental review practices and the utter lack of public participation in acquisition and site decisions; and
- Fails to even mention the need to withdraw and revise the current Memorandum of Understanding between the SCC and DEP truncating environmental reviews.
“Huge sums of taxpayer funds dedicated for the education for New Jersey’s most disadvantaged children have instead been spent in a way that needlessly put children and educators at risk,” added Wolfe. “We again urge Governor Corzine to adopt a public site selection process so that parents and educators are informed and involved and that known toxic waste sites are only an option of the very last resort.”
PEER is also urging that work at contaminated locations already under construction be halted and that permanent cleanups, as well as design or construction changes, are immediately adopted to address toxic contamination. For those sites where schools are already built, parents and educators should be notified and additional cleanup measures and monitoring be initiated immediately.
The report is released as the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office conducts an investigation into breakdowns in oversight at the controversial “Kiddie Kollege” day care center, where children were poisoned by mercury vapors from a former thermometer plant that had not been cleaned up. Last Friday U.S. Senator Robert Menendez introduced federal legislation (“Environmental Protection Act for Children of 2006”) to prevent children from toxic chemical exposure while attending either schools or day care centers. The Working Group report also fails to note any of these related developments.
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.