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Over 200 Sites in New Jersey on EPA’s List of Major Environmental Violations

Up-to-date info difficult to glean because federal agency’s database and state’s computer system aren’t compatible

More than 200 sites in New Jersey were listed as being in serious violation of at least one of four federal environmental laws as of last month in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's ECHO database.

The actual number could be higher, though, as not all of the information is up-to-date because of compatibility problems with the EPA's computer system and that of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

ECHO is the EPA's public access website. It allows people to find compliance and enforcement information for all monitored facilities subject to regulation under one of the four major environmental laws -- Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

People using the site can map multiple locations, find individual facilities, and get access to a wealth of detailed information, reports and penalties for each site.

It lists nearly 19,000 records for New Jersey facilities, ranging from chemical companies to small businesses to municipal garages to schools. The database shows that, since 2000, about 1,300 facilities have been fined for environmental violations. As of last month, 214 were listed as having a current serious violation, although only 80 of those listed had penalties assessed within the last five years.

The largest total penalty listed were $5.37 million in fines at Hess Corporation's Port Reading refinery in Woodbridge. It had a total of six violations for Clean Air Act violations, some dating back decades. ECHO lists Hess as having a current Clean Water Act violation from a May 2011 inspection, although that may not be the most up-to-date information.

The ECHO site displays a notice that current New Jersey Clean Water Act data is unavailable: "New Jersey is not supplying EPA with required data about its Clean Water Act discharge program as it has not converted to the current program data system (ICIS-NPDES). EPA copied New Jersey's data from the old data system on November 29, 2012. This allows users to see the list of regulated facilities and associated historical activities; however, subsequent state activities are not being reported."

New Jersey is one of four states -- the others are Arizona, Missouri and Vermont – that the EPA says is not providing current or complete CWA data. Of the four, New Jersey is the only one not listed as working with the EPA on the issue, although the agency said in a statement that it is working with New Jersey officials on resolving the problem.

Larry Hajna, a state DEP spokesman, blamed the EPA.

"We are not the only state having problems with ECHO," he said. "It is an old, basically obsolete system. New Jersey and other states have systems that can't communicate with it. We make all environmental information available through Data Miner. "

The state's response to the EPA is listed on the agency's website: "ICIS-NPDES includes historical data for the state of New Jersey; however, the state no longer enters data into this system. Therefore, the CWA data in ECHO for FFY2013 does not accurately reflect New Jersey's universe of facilities and enforcement work conducted. The NJDEP is dedicated to making environmental information readily available to our constituents while maintaining user confidence in the data. The information provided within NJDEP Data Miner reflects NJDEP's FFY2013 CWA data.

Hajna said transitioning to the EPA's system would be a "downgrade," requiring the state to spend millions of dollars on "obsolete hardware and software."

Jennifer Colaizzi of the EPA refuted that characterization.

"Both systems (ECHO and the ICIS-NPDES system that supports it) have been developed using the most current information technology -- having been recently modernized," she said. "EPA has worked positively with all other states in exchanging data on the NPDES program."

Hajna also said it is unnecessary for the state to spend so much money to send data to the EPA because DEP makes all of its information available on the state Data Miner site.

But DEP's Data Miner is clunky, with a learning curve. While it provides information for individual sites, it does not allow for finding and downloading data on multiple locations -- numerous requests for information on all regulated sites within just one county made on different days at different times were met with either a never-ending "Please wait while your request is processed" message or an error message that the request could not be completed because it took more than 10 minutes.

"I admit that Data Miner can be hard to use, but once you've used it and kicked the tires, you'll see it can be very helpful," said Hajna. "We have a really comprehensive website that you can use to find a wealth of information on any facility we regulate."

He said the department has told the EPA to retrieve its CWA data from Data Miner, "but they have not put it into their system and we can't get it into their system without spending millions of dollars."

According to the website, ECHO was last updated last December. Another update, of its Clean Air Act data, was started last October and is expected to be completed this month.

"EPA has been working with New Jersey for many years to ensure the state enters data into our backend data system," Colaizzi said. "EPA will continue to work with New Jersey to find a way for the state to exchange NPDES data with our data systems."

It is unclear whether New Jersey and other states that are not sending the EPA updated information face any penalties. Colaizzi did not respond to emails seeking an answer to that question.

The map shows only those sites listed as having a current serious violation.

NJ Spotlight has put ECHO's entire database of facility information, some dating back to the late 1970s, in a searchable database.

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