Op-Ed: Under 10 Years of Site Remediation Reform, Cleanups Move Forward

Caryn L. Barnes | June 6, 2019 | Opinion
On-point legislation and a professional association for licensed site remediation professionals have increased the pace of projects statewide

Caryn L. Barnes
In April 2008, before a joint hearing of the New Jersey Senate and Assembly environment committees, former New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Lisa Jackson was blunt.

“(R)eform of the Site Remediation program is needed. There is no doubt,” she said. “The option of maintaining the status quo does not exist as the environmental, health, and economic consequences are too great.”

Fast forward to 2019, now DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe told an audience of remediation professionals, “This program is working.”

What happened? New Jersey set out to increase the pace of remediation, and it worked.

The Site Remediation Reform Act (SRRA), signed into law in May 2009, gave the state new tools to tackle remediation. For the first time, the law required responsible parties to remediate their sites and set mandatory time frames for completing the work.

The law also established a credentialed group of experts, licensed site remediation professionals (LSRPs), who were charged with keeping responsible parties on task to complete remediations on time and in compliance with regulations.

A new concept for NJ

Modeled on programs in Massachusetts and Connecticut, LSRPs were a new concept to New Jersey in 2009. Nothing like it had ever been tried here before, even though New Jersey was then, and continues to be, at the forefront of environmental cleanups.

The legislation required LSRPs to undergo intensive testing and continuing education to maintain their expertise with environmental laws and requirements. It also set a strict code of conduct to ensure their first priority is to protect public health and the environment. The Licensed Site Remediation Professional Association also was created to further the profession of its members and serve as an educational and technical resource.

SRRA kept in place the DEP’s responsibility to uphold the state’s environmental laws and take enforcemental action against the parties responsible for contamination. It also allowed the DEP to create stricter requirements for remediation when the future use of a site includes a school, childcare facility, or residential housing.

The practice of LSRPs directing cleanups with DEP oversight has worked better than expected.

Breaking the remediation logjam

In 2008, when Commissioner Jackson spoke, New Jersey had a backlog of approximately 20,000 cases in need of remediation — including former industrial, commercial, and residential areas — and the backlog was growing. Now, 10 years after SRRA became law, more than 14,000 cases have completed remediation. And despite new cases being added every year, the total number of cases requiring remediation is going down.

Cleanups are faster. From 2001 to 2008, DEP case managers closed approximately 3,000 cases. With LSRPs nearly doubling the number of case managers, in the first eight years following SRRA, 2009 to 2016, 6,000 cases were closed by LSRPs with no loss in quality.

According to DEP figures, these weren’t just the simple sites. Pre-SRRA, 31 percent of the completed remediations were complex sites; sites with complicating factors such as multiple impacted media, comingled contamination, or complex geology. Post-SRRA, this percentage increased to 37 percent.

At the neighborhood level, this means underground oil tanks are being removed, and old gas stations and former drycleaners are being cleaned up. Fallow industrial sites are being restored and redeveloped. Responsible parties are following strict schedules to remediate sites to protect the people, the waters, the land, and the wildlife.

In fact, environmental remediation over the past 10 years has impacted every county and changed the landscapes of waterfronts and helped bring new businesses to old sites in cities across the state.

Now, many stakeholders are reviewing SRRA to update it with our 10 years of experience. Already, the DEP and legislative committees have held meetings to gain insight from business groups and the environmental community while maintaining the parts of SRRA that are its foundation: mandatory timeframes, requirements to remediate, and LSRPs.

We know environmental remediation is not static. Science, our understanding of risk, and best practices are ever changing. But our dedication to clean water, land, air and to protect people is steadfast and constant.