Trenton — The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection will retain private geologists rather than hire additional staff to evaluate contamination and toxic site clean-up. This sudden move to privatize the state toxic clean-up program is coming without cost-benefit analysis or any public notice or legislative consultation, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
In a September 13 staff briefing, Assistant Director Barry Frasco and Assistant Commissioner Irene Kropp informed DEP employees that private geologists would be handling all publicly funded clean up cases. In addition, DEP is also exploring delegation of greater toxic remediation authority to mayors and adoption of a system of privately “licensed site professionals” in order to address a backlog of 18,000 toxic sites.
The scramble for alternatives followed the refusal by the Corzine administration to hire additional DEP personnel to reduce the backlog. The precise number of contractors being brought into DEP remains unclear but the proposal would impact the investigation and cleanup of groundwater pollution at hundreds of toxic sites across the state. New Jersey has more than 6,000 known groundwater pollution cases.
Through an Open Public Records Act request, PEER is verifying that DEP has conducted no cost study or any other analysis to justify its privatization efforts. Moreover, the reliance on contractors for toxic site assessment raises a number of concerns, including the –
- Inability of DEP to monitor the quality of the work. In Massachusetts, which DEP points to as a model, a state audit of work by private site specialists found that three-quarters of the contracted work was deficient and much of the work had to be done over;
- Absence of any conflict-of-interest rules to prevent geologists with private clients from doing state work that may benefit those clients. DEP now uses private consultants to work on water pollution discharge permits despite those same consultants representing water polluters; and
- Secrecy and lack of a paper trail suggests the program’s justification cannot withstand scrutiny. In a late August meeting of selected stakeholders from industry and community groups on “Addressing Backlogs,” the DEP summary concedes that “use of in-house contractors [was] not discussed in detail” yet that option is being adopted despite pledges to keep stakeholders involved.
“DEP should more effectively deploy existing resources, conduct cost studies, and seek public input before leaping head-first into a privatized system of toxic remediation,” stated New Jersey DEP Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst, pointing to the problems that arose when the Whitman administration attempted to privatize air pollution permits. “The Department’s obligation to serve the public interest is undermined by loss of control to private contractors. Overseeing contractors is not one of this department’s strong suits.”
The source and amount of funds for the contemplated contracting has not been publicly disclosed. Some claim that the costs of private contractors are actually greater than using DEP employees.
“Although DEP agency does need more site remediation staff, the toxic backlog is primarily the result of profound management and enforcement breakdowns” Wolfe continued. “One of the first things DEP should be developing is a priority ranking for clean-ups to ensure that the important work gets done first and not lost in the shuffle, and then empower staff to enforce existing cleanup laws.”
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.