Administration Aggressively Pursues Privatized Site Cleanup

Tom Johnson | October 18, 2010 | Energy & Environment
State DEP calls progress ‘amazing’ but environmentalists are far more doubtful

If there is one policy left over from the Corzine administration that has been fully and enthusiastically embraced by Gov. Chris Christie, it is a program privatizing the cleanup of the tens of thousands of contaminated waste sites in New Jersey.

Dubbed the Licensed Site Remediation Professionals (LSRP) program, it was passed by the legislature despite bitter opposition from most environmental groups and signed into the law by the Democratic Governor this past year. Its proponents say it is the best way to deal with the more than 16,000 contaminated waste sites in New Jersey, most of which have been left fallow for years.

The program is being aggressively implemented by the new administration, so much so that some groups fear it will be used as a model to privatize other environmental programs in the state. That view was reinforced last week when the deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection appeared before a legislative committee to defend a plan to privatize the agency’s land-use program, began by touting the “amazing’’ success of the new contaminated site cleanup program.

“This could be a template for the future,’’ predicted Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “It’s a brave new world, not one necessarily good for the environment.”

A Bureaucratic Maze

The administration would argue otherwise, a view endorsed by some industry lobbyists who have long complained about becoming enmeshed in the maze of DEP’s bureaucracy. It’s even led some to complain about so-called “teenage’’ sites, locations that have been waiting action for between 13 and 19 years.

“While a work in progress, it is providing a straightforward route that leads to sites being addressed, remediated and returned to productive use,’’ said Jim Benton, executive director of the New Jersey Petroleum Council. He expects about a dozen oil companies to move 1,500 gas stations with pollution problems through the program. “I’m getting terrific feedback,’’ he said.

Some environmental groups remain skeptical.

“I’ve never seen any data that shows it’s cheaper for the state to have third parties rather than the government enforce environmental protection laws,’’ said David Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation. “It’s too early to be saying this program is cleaning up waste sites better and faster than before.’’

DEP officials would argue otherwise.

“In my mind, the real key of LSRP, we’re not the impediment to the case moving forward,’’ said David Sweeney, assistant commissioner of site remediation. “They move the case forward and certify the site is clean.”

A Heavy Caseload

There currently are 1,301 cases in the program, which has been operating only since November of 2009. Of those, 211 have been issued a Response Action Outcome (RAO), bureaucratic jargon meaning the site has been cleaned up or the pollution has been abated, Sweeney said. Most of those cases, however, involve sites with fewer pollution problems, Sweeney said.

To date, the DEP has granted 412 temporary licenses to individuals who have experience in dealing with contaminated sites in New Jersey. Those individuals are operating under interim cleanup rules, one reason both advocates and critics of the new law agree it is a work in progress.

The agency is in the process of adopting rules governing how cleanups should be pursued in a wide array of situations—soil cleanups; vapor intrusion in homes and businesses; gauging the extent of a pollution problem; and so forth. Eventually, it plans to rewrite 18 so-called technical guidance documents the licensed cleanup contractors will use, a decision some critics complain will needlessly drag out cleanups.

“We’re working closely with the department to streamline the program so that these thousands of sites do get cleaned up,’’ said Hal Bozarth, executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey, who had been a strong proponent of the privatization program.

Tough Licensing System

In passing the law, legislators imposed a tough licensing system on the consultants, which could lead to forfeiture of their licenses if they mislead the state on a cleanup or mandatory time frames for completing various stages of a cleanup. If not, the cleanup could then revert back to the agency. The rationale was to end bickering between a consultant and the agency and ensure a site is cleaned up swiftly.

However, the agency recently proposed new rules that extend the mandatory time frame deadline from taking effect until May 2012, a step that infuriated some environmentalists. The agency said it extended the deadline because various experts said the mandatory times frames set in the interim rules were too short and would have led the DEP staff taking over many cleanups.

“This is regulatory bait and switch where public health is what gets ripped off,” said Bill Wolfe, New Jersey director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. He noted that legislation authorizing privately overseen cleanups was based on the promise that they would be much faster than state supervised operations. “DEP caved before they even applied the new rules.”

Irene Kropp, deputy commissioner for DEP, defended the program. “What I believe we got was the opportunity to use our resources on the cases most important to us,” Kropp said, adding the state retains the right to audit any ongoing cleanup if it suspects problems. “The regulated community will be coming back to the legislature and asking for a lessening of this law.’’

Tittel was skeptical. “It is giving consultants a tremendous amount of authority without enough oversight,” he said. “Who does the consultant work for? Do they work for the polluter? They certainly don’t work for the people.”

The privatization program does not cover superfund toxic waste sites overseen by the government. New Jersey has more than 100 superfund sites, far more than any other state.