Trenton — Legislation to revamp New Jersey school construction will allow the recurrence of the same land scandals which crippled the old program, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). New Jersey has spent nearly $330 million to purchase environmentally contaminated lands found by the Inspector General to be “patently unsuitable” for schools, including a radioactive former Manhattan Project facility and a Superfund site. Such sites waste scarce education dollars on toxic cleanup, while putting minority and disadvantaged children in harm’s way.
Legislation signed by Governor Jon Corzine this Monday abolished the troubled Schools Construction Corporation (SCC) which had authorized the purchase of scores of contaminated sites and replaced it with a Schools Development Authority, which has even more authority and less environmental constraints. Gov. Corzine claims this new setup will “put an end to the waste and mismanagement of the past.” Despite their disastrous record, Corzine also announced that he is retaining the top managers of the old SCC to remain in place at the new School Development Authority.
“After the Exxon Valdez spill no one suggested giving Captain Hazeltine a larger boat, but in New Jersey the bigger the boondoggle, the bigger the pat on the back,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, who exposed a secret agreement between the SCC and the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to expedite the environmental review of contaminated school sites. “Governor Corzine apparently values loyalty higher than competence.”
PEER points out that the new legislation fails to address the most glaring weaknesses in the screening of new school sites. Instead of strengthening safeguards for children’s health, the new law –
- Fails to institute clear standards or enhanced environmental reviews over potentially contaminated lands or the investigation and cleanup of already acquired sites. After it was unmasked by PEER, SCC rescinded its agreement with DEP, but the new law does not follow through on that action by putting teeth into environmental reviews;
- Leaves decisions about contaminated sites to local school boards which are often ill-equipped to grapple with technical site evaluation and remediation decisions. Moreover, the bill lacks any standards for state review of local siting decisions, nor does it institute a policy to make building of schools on contaminated lands an option of last resort; and
- Continues to allow purchases of Superfund sites and other “patently unsuitable” tracts for schools. The bill explicitly authorizes as allowable costs to include pollution control and site remediation – without limitation or standards or any DEP review.
“All of the political players involved with this bill insist that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated, but nothing in this bill precludes the very same fiascoes from being inflicted again on the taxpayer,” Wolfe added, noting that development politics often trump school needs. “This is a real estate deal masquerading as reform.”
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.