Trenton — New Jersey took its first step this week toward a long overdue system for prioritizing the need to clean up thousands of toxic sites. Unfortunately, the state ranking only looks at risk to drinking water sources while overlooking human inhalation, ingestion and other exposures as well as effects on wildlife and the environment, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The single-track toxic priority system will allow serious public health problems to fester, such as –
- Subsurface vapor intrusion into homes and occupied buildings, as occurred at Pompton Lakes and at the DuPont site where 450 homes were contaminated by vapors from untreated groundwater;
- Migration of chemicals through soils into building basements, as occurred when chromium poisoned hundreds of households in Garfield; and
- Indoor exposures from conversion of industrial buildings, as occurred with the mercury contamination in Hoboken or inside Kiddie Kollege, the now infamous day-care center.
“The one lesson that we should have learned from decades of debacles in New Jersey is that there is no quick-fix for toxic waste,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, noting that the state is also ignoring exposure to workers, ecological impacts on fish and wildlife, cumulative effect of multiple chemicals and “environmental justice” communities already overburdened with pollution. “If your home is uninhabitable because of toxic vapors what good does it do you that your well water is potable?”
The Legislature first ordered the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to create a “Remedial Priority Scoring (RPS)” system 28 years ago under 1982 amendments to New Jersey’s toxic clean-up law. In 2006, PEER revealed that DEP officials had intentionally allowed its priority rating system “to expire,” leaving the state without any guide for deciding which sites were most in need of remediation. Former DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson then testified that developing a priority system was her “first priority” but despite her pledge no priority system emerged during her tenure.
The RPS was again mandated as a core element of the 2009 Site Remediation Reform Act. Under that law, the RPS serves as the basis for assuring that DEP retains full oversight of the highest risk sites, while newly created private “Licensed Site Professionals” handled the clean-up of lower priority sites with little or no DEP oversight. Under §39 of that law, DEP is supposed to adopt an RPS that can measure and rank each site's risk to human and ecological health, considering defined receptors, by May 7, 2010.
“The concern is that privatized site clean-up consultants will use this flawed RPS to evade DEP and community oversight at sites where drinking water is not the primary risk,” Wolfe added, pointing out that by DEP's own admission, its RPS failed to address other key human and ecological risks. “In New Jersey, we have no excuse for taking a half-assed approach to addressing our glaring legacy of toxic sites.”
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