If you listen to the state Department of Environmental Protection and some lawmakers, the efforts to privatize the cleanup of contaminated hazardous waste sites has been pretty much of an unqualified success.
Since the program was initiated in 2009, the number of hazardous waste sites in New Jersey awaiting cleanup has dropped from more than 20,000 to about 14,500, according to Mark Pedersen, an acting assistant commissioner of the DEP.
The development is significant given the uneven progress in cleaning up polluted waste sites in New Jersey, a state with a reputation for having more contaminated areas than nearly anywhere else in the nation.
Pedersen told the Senate Environment and Energy Committee that the program -- known as the Site Remediation Reform Act -- has been very successful in accelerating cleanups. In the past, many toxic sites have long languished without any action to contain pollution.
Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the committee, agreed. “It is working, but maybe not perfectly,’’ he said, after hearing Pedersen outline the progress of the program to the committee.
Nevertheless, the law allowing private contractors to clean up waste sites has been one of the most contentious issues between environmentalists, lawmakers, and industry lobbyists since it was passed. Environmentalists question whether the most serious pollution sites are being cleaned up, many of which have been awaiting attention for decades.
Others asked whether private contractors hired by polluters would ensure cleanups as stringent as those formerly overseen by the DEP, which was not answerable to outside firms.
But there has been not much opposition to a bill () that would allow polluters another two years to complete investigations on how to clean up their contaminated sites.
Approximately 3,800 cases could fail to meet a May 2014 deadline to conduct those investigations, according to Pedersen. “Even with good efforts, some parties may not meet the deadline,’’ he said.
Smith said extending the deadline by two years was reasonable. He noted that only applicants who post money to cover the costs of investigating the pollution at the site will be eligible and they must have hired a licensed contractor to begin the study of how to contain the pollution.
“These are the good guys,’’ Smith said, referring to those owners who have polluted sites that are moving forward to address the problems. Only those will be granted the two-year extension under the bill, he said.
Not everybody was convinced. Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer) abstained on the bill, saying she still has “questions on how successful this program has been.’’
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, was more critical. “To help a few, they are letting a lot of polluters off the hook,’’ he said. “They will have two more years to pollute their neighborhood.’’
But Pedersen said the agency has initiated enforcement actions against polluters that have led them to comply with the mandates of the law.