Trenton — In a stunning retreat, New Jersey announced that it is eliminating proposed standards to protect groundwater from chemical pollution dumped at toxic waste sites or leaking from underground tanks and pipelines. The move is a major concession to high-polluting industries which have vigorously opposed these toxic clean-up rules, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
In May 1, 2008 testimony before the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee, state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Lisa Jackson said she would abandon proposed “impact to groundwater pathway standards” and groundwater pollution impact assessment methods for all new clean-ups of toxic soil.
Accordingly to DEP, half of New Jersey residents depend on 900 million gallons of groundwater a day for drinking water. DEP has identified more than 6,000 polluted groundwater sites, forcing closure of hundreds of municipal and residential wells across the state. Polluted groundwater can also migrate under buildings, causing “vapor intrusion” from volatile chemicals that poison building inhabitants.
In addition to jettisoning the proposed impact-to-groundwater standards, DEP also scrapped the scientific methodology for evaluating impacts of soil contamination on groundwater. This reversal represents a substantial rollback of protections because –
- Impact-to-groundwater standards are typically far more stringent (lower) than surface soil cleanup standards. For example, the soil clean-up standard for the carcinogen benzene is 4 mg/kg (parts per million or ppm) based on inhalation risk, but the impact-to-groundwater standard is 0.0008 mg/kg (ppm), 5,000 times more stringent than what will now be required;
- Sites where contaminated soils exceed the impact-to-groundwater standards must be removed or treated and may not be simply capped and left in place; and
- When coupled with the DEP plan to privatize toxic site clean-ups, much more discretion is placed in the hands of industry to decide whether public health and drinking water are safeguarded. This combination also will make it extremely difficult for the state to oversee or audit the performance of private contractor clean-ups.
“This is an astonishing abdication of the state’s primary responsibility for protecting drinking water,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst, noting that instead of strict absolute standards there are vague, relative guidelines that will be very hard to enforce. “In essence, DEP is ignoring the fact that soil contamination taints groundwater. As a result, we will be seeing many more pave-and-wave clean-ups without regard to public health.”
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