Why has the DEP failed to rank NJ’s polluted sites? ProPublica tried to find out

A decade ago the State Department of Environmental Protection agreed to rank its most contaminated sites to make sure the most toxic of them remained a state priority, even though private companies were taking on a bigger role in the clean up. Those rankings never happened. ProPublica’s environmental impact reporter Talia Buford dug into the reasons. She sat down with Correspondent Michael Hill.

Hill: Talia, you wrote this article for ProPublica, and in the article title is “New Jersey said ten years ago it would rank its most contaminated sites. It never did.” Why didn’t it?

Buford: Well, the state said that it was too hard, and that it was too difficult and that they had other systems in place to make sure that the worst contaminated sites were being cleaned up and adequately overseen.

Hill: And so is that system working, that they came up with?

Buford: Well, it’s kind of beside the point. The law says that they are required to create this ranking so that the public can know how cleanups are going, what’s happening with the sites that are being cleaned by public funding and they never did it. So, regardless of whether the system is working well or not, the law requires that there be this sort of transparency, especially because of the way New Jersey now does its site cleanups.

Hill: So has this delayed cleanups in any way?

Buford: Not that I know of, no. So this would be just really to make sure that you or I, or a bank, or anyone really in the public would know what is happening with sites that are being cleaned up. There’s a whole other system that deals with kind of the pace of cleanups and how fast things are being cleaned up around the state.

Hill: So then is the public not getting the knowledge it needs because the state’s not meeting the law?

Buford: Well, yeah. So in theory you’re supposed to be able to find out what sites the state is cleaning up and what sites they’re using your money to pay for to clean these sites. Right now it’s really difficult to figure that out. There is some information on the public website, but it’s not very user-friendly, essentially.

Hill: So is DEP then saying to itself, that look, we realize that we’re not following the law, but we’re coming up with something to meet the law or the spirit of the law?

Buford: They are, but they’ve been saying that for a lot of years. So you have to remember that in 1982 is the first time that we started talking about creating a list of contaminated sites in New Jersey.

Hill: That long ago?

Buford: That long ago. We were generous and so we said that in 2009, when there was a kind of a revamp of the site remediation law, we said, OK, this is when, you know, you had this renewed focus on this database and this system. Let’s have that be the timeline, not including, you know, the 30-plus years that we were talking about this before. And the DEP has said before that this has been a priority. Lisa Jackson, when she was head of the DEP, she said that it was a priority, said it was crucial for the public to have this information. The state auditor has said that it was important for DEP to do this, and they still haven’t done it.

Hill: So they made promises, as well, but they’re not even meeting their own promises?

Buford: Exactly.

Hill: So what about oversight? Who’s saying to the DEP in this process, “Look, you’re not following the law, you’re not following or even meeting the spirit of the law. We’re going to do something about this.” Is there any oversight?

Buford: Well, in theory, the oversight would come from maybe the Legislature. They would be able to say, “Hey, we want to strengthen this law and enforce DEP to do this,” which, I mean, they’ve already done it. They already have this on the books. It’s not a law that is not on the books, so it’s there already. It’s just a matter of kind of enforcement. Right now, the DEP has not said that — well they’ve said that they are going to do this, this new system, but they haven’t told us when, they haven’t told what it’s going to look like and so we’re kind of in the same boat.

Hill: Is it the impression of the people who are watching this go along that DEP is still dragging its feet?

Buford: Well, I wouldn’t say that they’re dragging their feet. I think that they believe that, or what they’ve told us, rather, in our reporting is that it’s not a priority and that the system as its laid out in the law isn’t the best way to get people the information that they need. Which, completely understandable, but it’s also just not in the law, that this is what the law requires, and they just aren’t doing it.

Hill: So the DEP has been coming up with an alternate system to meet this to meet this law. When did they come up with that, and why is it taking so long?

Buford: Well that’s a complicated answer. So they’ve been doing this system, or have trying to do this system, like I said, since 1982. It’s kind of come in different iterations over the years, and then in 2009, instead of it being a list —

Hill: Ten years ago.

Buford: Ten years ago. It was supposed to be a database instead of a list. And they’ve been trying to do this for years, and it’s complicated because site cleanups in New Jersey, as you can imagine, are complicated. There are lots of sites, there’s a lot of different data out there. And because of the way that New Jersey does their site cleanups where there are licensed professionals who kind of oversee the cleanups in different spaces, there’s a lot of information that is on the ground — that is current, but may not make it back to DEP immediately. So they have, you know, outdated information in some cases, and there’s just a lot, a lot of sites.

Hill: Now you’re with ProPublica. You’re going to be in New Jersey covering the environment. Tell me about that.

Buford: Absolutely. We are a nonprofit newsroom. We’re based in New York. But I cover the environment and we said, you know, there is a great state just right across the river, so we are going to be here covering environmental issues in New Jersey. So if people have their own experiences with site cleanups or other issues that we should be paying attention to, definitely they should reach out to me.

Hill: You know you’re going to be super busy with all the work here, right?

Buford: That’s fine with me. That is absolutely fine.