Trenton — The students, staff and parents of a New Jersey elementary school suffering from an underground plume of toxic chemicals finally may be getting some help, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). A state-approved vapor intrusion plan will be in place next month at Atlantic Highlands Elementary School in Monmouth County on the northern New Jersey shore.
For more than three years, children and teachers have been exposed to unsafe indoor toxic air pollutants that exceed state vapor intrusion levels. In announcements this week, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) says that it will oversee installation of a “sub-slab vapor mitigation system” to reduce chemical exposures within school facilities.
“While this is good news, it is long past due because the state DEP again has fallen down on the job,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst, who had been prodding the state to address the long-standing problem. “Even this new remedial action is the result of a voluntary negotiated settlement and not a state enforcement action.”
A plume had migrated under the school building from an abandoned industrial site across the street that is the suspected source of the problem. Groundwater and soil have become contaminated with the toxic chemicals Trichloroethylene (TCE) and Tetrachloroethylene (PCE). Despite indoor air readings far above safety levels, cumulative risks to children have not been quantified nor were protective measures taken.
For several months, an organized group of parents has worked quietly with the DEP case manager and local schools officials and was led to believe that a sub-slab depressurization system would be installed before the start of this school year. Under the arrangement just unveiled, portions of the school will have to be closed to install vapor controls.
“As recently as last week, DEP denied it even had jurisdiction. Only the threat of publicity sparked this action,” Wolfe added. “The state needs clear rules so that this sort of buck-passing cannot recur.”
PEER points to areas of ambiguity that the state has not clarified, including whether the “Kiddie Kollege” law (enacted after a mercury-laden day-care scandal) applies to existing schools whose land becomes contaminated or only to new schools located on land that is contaminated. In addition, to avoid delays and needless exposure of children, DEP should issue an enforcement Spill Act Directive to the Responsible Party with a compliance schedule and stipulated penalties in cases such as Atlantic Highlands.
“This case shows that all of the rhetoric about children being the top enforcement priority is just so much hot air,” Wolfe concluded. “Health protections should have been put into play at the first sign of danger.”
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