Washington, DC — A new audit by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency faults the quality and consistency of New Jersey programs for cleaning up toxic wastes, preserving wetlands and other key functions, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Many of the defects were first identified in a 2006 audit but Lisa Jackson, then head of the New Jersey agency and now EPA Administrator, neglected to put in place most of the corrective steps she had pledged to implement.
The new EPA audit of “Quality System Assessment” reviews whether the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) can measure what it does, whether its data is reliable and how it tracks results over time. While EPA found that DEP had made some progress, the federal agency concluded that several major DEP components suffer from “significant shortcomings” and fail to meet minimal federal standards for management quality and performance. Among the findings are –
- The state program for cleaning up toxic wastes operates on an honor system and does not check industry claims: “None of the Site Remediation Program’s bureaus interviewed do any project assessment and/or process improvement beyond data validation, (i.e. no field audits, no split samples, no internal assessments, etc). The EPA assessment team was told that Responsible Party contractors and/or NJDEP contractors are ‘certified professionals and taken at their word’”;
- The state wetland protection program lacks any quality assurances that its permit, land use and inventory of rare species habitat is accurate; and
- Many of the steps that EPA identified in a previous audit to improve departmental performance, including data collection, tracking and training, were still absent three years later despite a Corrective Action Plan submitted in April 21, 2006 by then-DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson laying out an implementation schedule. Jackson remained Commissioner for the next two and a half years after submitting that plan and was confirmed to lead EPA this past January.
“This audit is an indictment of DEP management for failing fundamental tests of competence,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst. “Without basic procedures for assuring the accuracy and quality of performance data a public agency cannot even be sure that its shoes are tied.”
This audit is just the latest failing grade issued to DEP management. In 2008, for example, EPA was forced to intervene and assume control of several state-supervised Superfund clean-ups, following a scathing Inspector General report decrying inordinate delays and mismanagement. Ironically, Jackson’s prior EPA experience before she came to DEP had been in Superfund.
“Recent DEP Commissioners, including Lisa Jackson, have been far more concerned with political appearances than reality,” added Wolfe, noting that an agency review commissioned by Jackson in 2008 did not mention a single issue tagged by the new EPA audit. “In order to effectively protect New Jersey’s environment, we need to let public servant specialists do the job they are supposed to do.”
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