Trenton — More than two out of three privately supervised toxic clean-ups in a Massachusetts program that New Jersey wants to adopt failed audits with serious violations, according to records released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Despite these red flags, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is rushing to embrace further privatization of its troubled toxic remediation program as a cost-free panacea.
State audits of work done by licensed private consultants in Massachusetts during the April to June 2007 period indicated the following:
- Serious violations were found in 21 of 30 sites subjected to full (Level 3) reviews, for a failure rate of 70%. The “most common violation cited was…failure to define the horizontal and vertical extent and concentrations of oil and/or hazardous materials”, according to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection audit report; and
- Less intensive audits yielded a lower percentage of violations with 24 of 89 sites subjected to Level 2 reviews found to be out of compliance, with the most common violation being failure to follow the clean-up plan specifications.
“These audits show that privatization is not a substitute for strict public oversight,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst. “The central problem at DEP is not lack of resources but the poorest departmental leadership within memory.”
PEER argues that DEP has an unrealistic view of its plan to license private sector consultants to replace state employees in overseeing remediation of contaminated sites program by overlooking –
- The need to hire new state employees to license and oversee the private consultants. DEP is under a hiring freeze and does not have surplus employees to assign to run this new program;
- Privatization does not mean the program is free. DEP has disclosed no plan to plan for financing the program nor is it clear how the state will save any money in its operation; and
- Perhaps most importantly, DEP has failed to prioritize any of its more than 16,000 toxic sites – something DEP is legally required to do and has promised to do for the past two years. Without a ranking system, public health will remain secondary to developer interest in deciding where to invest scarce resources.
In a recent opinion piece, DEP Assistant Commissioner Irene Kropp wrote “We recognize that we still have details to work out, and we will do so working closely with the Legislature and stakeholder groups”.
“Ignoring all evidence to the contrary, DEP has decided to bull forward without consulting stakeholders other than developers,” Wolfe added. “DEP is guilty of magical thinking about privatization as the preordained solution without working it through.”
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.