Probe Called for in New Jersey Toxic High School Fiasco
Inspector General Asked Why “Kiddie Kollege” Law Failed Clifton High School
Trenton — Conversion of a polluted former industrial site in Clifton without environmental testing shows that legislation enacted last year in the wake of similar scandals from toxic-laden schools and day-care centers is not working, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). PEER today asked New Jersey’s Inspector General to determine why anti-pollution rules were set aside by state and local environmental and educational officials.
The $11 million high school annex for 500 students in Passaic County is located in an old industrial site which used more than 50 types of toxic chemicals, including pesticides, arsenics and a host of volatile organics. Despite this history, the school district did not perform a required “due diligence” investigation into potential hazards before purchasing the property. In addition, according to an analysis of the Clifton case filed by PEER:
- The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) improperly allowed local construction to begin prior to certifying that the entire site required “no further action” to clean it up;
- A stream running behind the property was not tested for contamination; and
- Soil samples were limited to only certain pollutants in selected locations.
“What is going on at the Clifton high school is precisely what the highly touted reforms enacted just a few months ago were supposed to prevent,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, referring to the “Kiddie Kollege” legislation, named after a day-care center was found to be operating in a mercury-laden former thermometer factory. “We want the Inspector General to look into this case, name names and hold responsible officials accountable; otherwise we can expect school construction debacles like this to recur on a regular basis.”
In a previous report, the Inspector General determined that New Jersey has spent nearly $330 million to purchase environmentally contaminated lands found by to be “patently unsuitable” for schools, including a radioactive former Manhattan Project facility and a Superfund site. This latest experience in Clifton suggests that the underlying flaws in the school construction program remain unabated.
One aspect of the case PEER is asking the Inspector General to review is private meetings between elected officials who were promoting the project and top DEP officials. It is unclear whether DEP improperly expedited the school project in response to political pressure.
“The safety of a high school should not be hashed out behind closed doors with politicians without the parents present,” added Wolfe. “I am utterly amazed that New Jersey is still putting its children into facilities built on some of the nastiest toxic pits in the state.”
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.