Washington, DC — Three days before Christmas, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson promised swift action on the presence of hexavalent chromium (or chromium-6, the substance made famous by Erin Brockovich in California) in drinking water after meeting with 10 U.S. Senators. During her tenure as the top environmental official in New Jersey, however, Jackson stalled or minimized health warnings on chromium-6, including those from her own staff, according to materials posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Despite being seemingly taken by surprise by the Environmental Working Group findings of chromium in drinking water, from her very first until her last days as Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) from 2005 to 2008, Jackson wrestled with increasingly dire scientific findings that raised big questions about how protective her department’s policies were, including –
- A DEP risk assessment that found current New Jersey standards for chromium 6 in soil are more than 200 times laxer than needed to protect public health. While this assessment was about soil, it pointed to risks from ingestion in water and recommended review of stomach cancer rates near contaminated sites. That assessment has yet to be translated into standards;
- A DEP scientist-whistleblower who revealed state sampling data showing that individual cancer risks from continued presence of airborne chromium may be as high as 1 in 10 at some sites the state has declared to be clean. Nonetheless, Commissioner Jackson lifted the moratorium on chromium cleanups, thus allowing more inadequate site remediations to proceed;
- A 2008 DEP health assessment that found heightened risks of lung cancer from exposure to airborne chromium in the Jersey suburbs of the New York metropolitan area; and
- Newspaper exposés documenting that scientific fraud by consultants and improper industry influence led to relaxed DEP cleanup standards for chromium, saving corporate polluters hundreds of millions of dollars in reduced cleanup costs.
None of these developments were met with substantive reforms, however. “For years Lisa Jackson has reacted to blaring chromium alarms as if each one was news to her,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing to cities like Garfield. “Thousands of people in New Jersey remain as vulnerable to chromium risks as they ever were.” Compounding the problem was that Jackson and her top deputies took actions to cut off the flow of new scientific information rather than addressing underlying risks, such as –
- Abolishing the DEP Division of Science & Research which produced the chromium risk assessments and replacing it with an advisory body with industry representation;
- Removing the DEP whistleblower, Zoe Kelman, from chromium-related assignments and denying her meaningful work. Kelman eventually resigned in disgust; and
- Issuing “gag” orders prohibiting scientists from disclosing agency data to any outside parties “until it is ready for public distribution.”
“Chromium in water is a concern but it is also of concern in the air and soil. We need a comprehensive national response to chromium in all media,” added Ruch. “Our fear is that we will see the New Jersey pattern of promises but no follow-through repeated at EPA.”