Fine Print: New Jersey’s Hazardous Waste Cleanup Program

Tom Johnson | June 16, 2011 | Energy & Environment
State Department of Environmental Protection introduces licensed third-party professionals into its cleanup and remediation projects

Synopsis: Big changes are happening in the state’s efforts to clean up hazardous waste sites, with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) moving to turn over the responsibility for cleaning up contaminated areas to licensed site remediation professionals (LSRPs), a move advocates say will speed up the cleanup of tens of thousands of polluted sites across New Jersey.

Why it happened: The state agency has been widely criticized by the business community for being one of the big impediments to cleaning up polluted waste sites, more focused on process than results, according to top DEP officials. That emphasis meant more contaminated sites were being discovered than were being cleaned up, a problem that has frustrated developers seeking to convert brownfields to more profitable use and local officials who sought to convert abandoned wastes sites back into tax-generating ratables.

What’s happened so far: The new administration says it has trimmed the number of contaminated sites from a high of 20,000 to a bit over 16,000, but most of those sites involve leaking tanks from retail gas stations. The state also has given temporary licenses to 470 professionals seeking to oversee hazardous waste cleanups.

The devil is in the details: The licensed site professionals will be guided in how they oversee cleanups by more than 15 technical documents detailing proper procedures for dealing with pollution problems. Environmentalists claim the documents were largely influenced by industry consultants, a claim that DEP officials vigorously deny. They say the environmental community was invited to sit in at stakeholder discussions, but declined.

Why the business community likes the program: The program eliminates detailed DEP oversight over cleanups, relying on the LSRPs to follow the guidance material and then issue a Response Action Outcome (RAO), a document that would signify the cleanup has been completed and requires no further DEP action.

Why the environmental community is unhappy: They do not want to end DEP oversight over cleanups, saying industry-hired consultants will choose the cheapest and quickest way to clean up waste sites. They argue that the state should retain oversight of the cleanups since its overriding interest is to protect the public from pollution threats. The state agency argues it has the right to invalidate any RAOs, and retain oversight of cleanups that have not been done properly.

Say goodbye to: The state no longer will require businesses with pollution problems to enter the Industrial Site Recovery Act, a law that required industrial sites to remedy problems before they could be sold or closed down. It was one of the more vilified environmental laws of the past few decades, causing numerous real estate deals to bog down. Now, if an industrial site is being sold, it can move forward if it hires a LSRP.

Funding is running dry: The state is only allocating approximately $15 million in funding to clean up so-called orphan sites, where no responsible party has been found to pay for pollution remediation. It has stopped accepting new applications for cleanup in both its underground storage tank program, which has become a victim of its own success, and its municipal-driven cleanups of abandoned brownfields.

Stay tuned for: May 2012. By then, any site with pollution problems will have to hire an LSRP to oversee cleanup, a requirement state officials believe will help address the problem of longstanding waste sites, where no action has been taken to remedy problems. The requirement, however, will not affect federal superfund sites, contaminated sites owned by the federal government and certain other sites governed by federal pollution laws.