Trenton — Pre-empting legislative debate and the work of its own newly convened task force, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection will privatize pollution control and deregulate toxic clean-ups, according to statements from its top official. Unfortunately, this decision will jeopardize public health protections and further enmesh the embattled DEP in scandal, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) argues in testimony delivered tomorrow before a joint hearing of Senate and Assembly Environment Committees.
In a breakfast roundtable with a real estate group on April 3, 2008, DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson said:
“Sometimes I feel our department is so overworked that we are not getting results, we’re just pushing paper. Therefore, I feel outsourcing the consultant program to the private sector will ease the workload and lower the wait time for all those involved in site remediation.”
Less than six months earlier, however, Commissioner Jackson admitted “We realize that the state’s system that allows self-reporting for monitoring of these contaminated properties is broken.”
“If relying on industry self-policing has been a disaster, why do we want to expand it?” asked New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst, pointing to a series of well publicized fiascos such as Encap, the mercury-laden Kiddie Kollege day-care center and the Ford plant PCB clean-up. “Privatization of toxic site clean-ups is a fool’s errand because consultants and their polluter clients have huge economic incentives to cut corners, ignore regulations and compromise public health and environmental protection.”
Nonetheless, the commissioner wants to license private sector consultants to replace state employees in overseeing remediation of contaminated sites. The licensing program is based on a similar program in Massachusetts, where three-quarters of the contracted work was found deficient and much of the work had to be done over, according to audits in that state.
“It costs the taxpayers a lot more money and angst if the clean-up has to be repeated to get it right,” Wolfe added. “DEP should carefully and publicly analyze alternatives and their savings rather than lurching like a drunken sailor into the first open saloon.”
In a state that is no stranger to corruption, the absence of conflict-of-interest rules to prevent consultants benefiting private clients while doing state work is disquieting. DEP now uses private consultants to work on water pollution discharge permits despite those same consultants representing water polluters.
Last month, Jackson appointed a controversial Permit Efficiency Review Task Force but before that group has even met she has showed her cards in that debate as well, saying at the roundtable:
“If we do not address how we deal with our permits department, I feel the department will collapse under the weight. Folks want predictability of outcomes and times and we are trying to bring that.”
“Enforcing pollution standards is not the cause of economic distress in the Garden State,” Wolfe concluded. “When the state’s top environmental official uses the exact same rhetoric as industry lobbyists, it is time to beware.”
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