Legislators Move to Fine-Tune Law for Cleanup of Contaminated Sites

Tom Johnson | June 13, 2019 | Energy & Environment
Business interests mostly in favor of proposed changes, while some environmentalists have concerns

Credit: Sarah Gonzalez/WNYC
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The Legislature is working to fine-tune what some regard as one of the state’s most successful environmental initiatives: the cleaning up by licensed professionals of abandoned industrial sites and other locations contaminated by discharge of hazardous waste.

In the last decade, the Site Remediation Reform Act, in bureaucratic jargon, has reduced the number of sites awaiting cleanup from more than 20,000 to about 13,500, according to Mark Pedersen, an assistant commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

In the past, many of those sites languished without any action to contain the pollution therein, to the frustration of residents living around those sites as well as environmental groups.

By and large, the state has moved to speed up the process of addressing pollution problems at contaminated sites by using privately licensed contractors — instead of DEP case managers — to oversee cleanups. Business interests say it has led to thousands of fallow sites being available to new development; environmentalists question whether the cleanups are merely capping pollution.

Nevertheless, the legislation (S-3682/A-5293) appears to be moving quickly through the process. The Senate Environment and Energy Committee met a week ago, holding the bill for further amendments. It won approval from the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee on Monday.

The legislation emerged out of months of stakeholder meetings to deal with problems in the 10-year-old law, although some environmentalists have complained about being excluded from the process.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Senate committee, described the original law as one of the two most successful environmental programs in New Jersey (the other being the program to fund water quality improvement projects through an infrastructure bank). “Even the best program, after 10 years, may need some tweaks,’’ Smith said.

Changes would still allow for DEP oversight

The changes to the law are designed to clarify the intent of the law as well as clear up some sections subject to misunderstanding, according to Pedersen. The amendments also ensure DEP has authority to step in and offer direct oversight of cleanup projects under certain circumstances.

He also said the amendments give those firms undertaking projects more flexibility in ensuring they have funds to complete cleanups. Finally, the changes increase the obligations of cleanup professionals to report to the department when discharges of contaminants occur on site.

For the most part, the business community backed the changes.

“This bill is a demonstration of what the Legislature does best,’’ Ray Canton, a vice president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, told the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee on Monday, citing it as an example of lawmakers exercising oversight of an important law.

Michael McGuiness, representing NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, praised the proposal for not “unnecessarily increasing the burden’’ on the sector for redeveloping properties.

Concerns over cleanup program remain

Initially, an association representing the more than 700 licensed site remediation specialists overseeing the private cleanup programs had some issues with the bill, primarily with new licensing provisions, but have submitted amendments that may resolve their concerns, according to Rodger Ferguson, president of the Licensed Site Remediation Professionals Association.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, however, said his organization has concerns over the cleanup program, questioning how many hazardous sites have been simply “capped’’ without addressing plumes of groundwater contamination under the properties.

Tittel also criticized the department for failing to comply with a 2010 law to develop a ranking system for the thousands of hazardous waste sites awaiting cleanup based upon their health risk to the public.

Environmentalists believe the lack of a ranking system leads the market to determine what sites are cleaned up — the ones that can be profitably remediated the quickest — because developers do not want to get involved in complex and expensive cleanup sites.