Washington, DC — Facing a lawsuit, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has released documents outlining how an air polution study of Camden neighborhoods was re-written to allay industry objections. The released e-mails depict a clubby, closed door climate in which the state regulators seek to assuage industry concerns even while keeping the affected community in the dark, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
At issue is an October 6, 2008 study by DEP scientists in partnership with the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey entitled “Final Report: Contribution of Particle Emissions from a Cement Facility to Outdoor Dust in Surrounding Community”. It assesses how much dust is blowing from piles of granulated blast furnace slag at the St. Lawrence Cement Facility onto adjacent Camden neighborhoods. The report concluded that –
- There was a significant impact on nearby homes: “The estimated contributions of cement dust to outdoor dust measured by deposition dust samplers ranged from 4.9% to 18.2% ... and 5.6 to 21.8%”; and
- Simple controls are available: “A cover over the piles would be a reasonable and well tested way to control these fugitive emissions.”
After this final report was posted on the DEP website, industry consultants sent objections to Nancy Wittenberg, DEP Assistant Commissioner for Environmental Regulation and a former lobbyist for the New Jersey Builders Association. DEP removed the “final report” from its website and Wittenberg set up a closed-door June 2, 2009 meeting with industry consultants to review their concerns.
In response to an Open Public Records Act request filed by former DEP employee Bill Wolfe for the final report and agency communications with industry, the agency initially claimed that no documents could be released because they were “deliberative” in nature and covered by “attorney-client privilege”. After PEER informed DEP that it was preparing to file suit challenging the basis for non-disclosure as bogus, on July 17, 2009 DEP released the requested material – except for the revised study which is slated for publication later this week, according to an agency official.
“In New Jersey, even science is negotiable,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who helped prepare the lawsuit. “Notably left out of the loop are the people in Camden who have to breathe this stuff daily and get no say as to whether a tarp over the slag heaps would be a commonsense step.”
This also appears to be yet another recent instance where state political appointees inappropriately screen scientific work. In fact this June, DEP formalized its political review process for all technical reports.
“DEP has become a serial offender against government transparency and scientific integrity,” added Wolfe. “This is only one sample of DEP cooking the books and then violating OPRA to cover the smell.”