The state is more than five years overdue in developing a ranking system to determine health risks posed by about 10,000 contaminated hazardous waste sites, according to an audit released yesterday.
In an otherwise generally favorable review of its site remediation program, the Office of the State Auditor found that the Department of Environmental Protection failed to comply with a directive in a 2010 state law requiring it to rank thousands of waste sites and come up with a priority list for cleaning them up.
Given the huge number of waste sites that remain to be cleaned up, the questions of when and in what order has long been debated among environmentalists, residents, and local officials.
“Right now cleanups are dictated by the market,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, noting that sites that can be profitably redeveloped are done the quickest. “Clearly some of the most polluted sites in our cities are left untouched.’’
By and large, the state has moved to a system in which private contractors, instead of DEP case managers, oversee most of the cleanups. The program has cleaned up thousands of sites that had remained polluted for years, a record hailed by the business community and lawmakers.
The audit also found that the department’s site remediation program is adequately monitoring the process, dubbed Licensed Site Remediation Professionals.
Environmentalists are more skeptical about how successful the privatization program has been, citing the failure to prioritize waste sites.
“The whole point of the LSRP was to go after the 300 worst sites in New Jersey so that they would be cleaned up,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
According to the law, the department was supposed to develop a five-tiered ranking system with category one being the least potential risk and category five being the highest.
audit said management stated that Remedial Priority Scoring is still under development, blaming limited resources being diverted to other events, such as hurricanes Irene and Sandy. As of November 2015, the site remediation program listed 11,400 actives sites on its website but none contained rankings, according to the audit.
The department accepted the auditor’s recommendation to come up with a ranking system, but gave no indication when that task would be completed.
“The challenges faced by SRP in development of the RPS system include the substantial volume 0f sites that qualify (over 9,500 in New Jersey) and data gaps due to property abandonment and missing records,’’ the department said in its written response to the audit.
Beyond the ranking system, the audit also faulted the department for inappropriately billing approximately $3 million in salaries to the site remediation program for employees who had been transferred to other parts of the agency. Most of the employees will be funded from the general fund, the agency said. The others worked processing open public-records requests, a vast majority dealing with issues involving the site remediation program, according to the department.