Quick Changes Made to Law on Privatized Cleanups at Toxic Waste Sites

Tom Johnson | June 21, 2019 | Energy & Environment
Decade-old program addressing pollution at contaminated industrial properties is fine-tuned, but some environmentalists have concerns

Credit: J. Banks/Unsplash
With unusual swiftness, the Legislature yesterday approved a bill refining the state’s privatized system of cleaning up hazardous waste sites, a program that has led to the redevelopment of thousands of contaminated industrial properties.

Both the Senate and Assembly approved without debate a bill (S-1683) that would fine-tune a decade-old program widely regarded as helping the state to address pollution problems at nearly 14,000 contaminated sites.

The legislation, introduced only a few weeks ago, moved quickly through the environmental committees of the Legislature, usually a logjam for controversial issues, particularly relating to cleanups of toxic waste sites around New Jersey.

Nevertheless, the success of the Site Remediation Reform Act in cleaning up abandoned properties helped usher rapid, if only technical, changes to the program.

“Even though we have a fabulous program, I think it is going to be even more fabulous now,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith, a sponsor who pushed the bill through the Senate Environment and Energy Committee on Monday. The bill makes changes that improve the program without weakening the ability to clean up sites in New Jersey, he said.

Many sites languished

“The act works, and now it is better,’’ said Caryn Barnes, president of the Licensed Site Remediation Professionals Association, whose 700 members have helped speed cleanups of contaminated sites.

In the past, many contaminated sites languished without ever being cleaned up, a frustration to residents living nearby who had to live with the pollution, and local officials who wondered why long-idle properties couldn’t be returned to productive use.

The law creating a privatized cleanup program sought to address that problem, and so far, seems to have succeeded. Instead of case managers at the state Department of Environmental Protection overseeing cleanups, the law put much of the responsibility on privately licensed professionals.

The changes are designed to clarify the intent of the law as well as clear up sections subject to misunderstanding, but also give DEP more authority to step in to exercise authority over cleanups, especially when spills occur.

Business interests and environmentalists want more

To some business lobbyists, the changes do not go far enough.

“To the business community, there is a lot more to do to speed up cleanups in a lot of ways without impacting the public health and environment,’’ said Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey.

Among other measures, he had advocated changes to the financial assurances that companies have to make regarding cleanups on contaminated properties. He described the changes in the law as merely technical.

Environmental groups had a different take.

“It is extraordinary how quickly some legislation can move in June,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, referring to when budget negotiations come to a head. “We still have massive concerns with this bill that have not been addressed.’’

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed. “This bill is more about redeveloping properties than cleaning them up,’’ he said. “When bills get passed this quickly, the public will suffer.’’