, April 15, 2008 (ENS) - Pre-empting legislative debate and the work of its own newly convened task force, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection will privatize pollution control and deregulate toxic cleanups, according to statements by the agency's top official.
This decision will jeopardize public health protections and further enmesh the embattled DEP in scandal, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER, argued in testimony today before a joint hearing of the state Senate and Assembly Environment Committees.
PEER is a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure enforcement of environmental laws, scientific integrity, and government accountability.
In a breakfast roundtable with a real estate group on April 3, 2008, DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson said, "Sometimes I feel our department is so overworked that we are not getting results, we're just pushing paper. Therefore, I feel outsourcing the consultant program to the private sector will ease the workload and lower the wait time for all those involved in site remediation."
Less than six months earlier, Commissioner Jackson admitted "We realize that the state's system that allows self-reporting for monitoring of these contaminated properties is broken."
The setting sun illuminates polluted northern New Jersey. (Photo credit unknown)
"If relying on industry self-policing has been a disaster, why do we want to expand it?" asked New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst for 13 years.
"Privatization is the cause not the solution to problems," Wolfe told the state legislators.
He pointed to a series of well publicized fiascos such as Encap, the mercury-laden Kiddie Kollege day-care center and the Ford plant PCB cleanup.
"Privatization of toxic site cleanups is a fool's errand because consultants and their polluter clients have huge economic incentives to cut corners, ignore regulations and compromise public health and environmental protection," said Wolfe.
Still, the commissioner wants to license private sector consultants to replace state employees in overseeing remediation of contaminated sites.
The licensing program is based on a similar program in Massachusetts, where three-quarters of the contracted work was found deficient and much of the work had to be done over, according to audits in that state.
"Many DEP professionals have told me of shoddy, high cost, and duplicative or unnecessary consultant work," Wolfe testified. "It costs the taxpayers a lot more money and angst if the cleanup has to be repeated to get it right."
He recommended legislative amendments that empower the DEP to select remedies for each pollution problem based on a policy of a preference for permanent remedies, and only after a comparison of alternatives.
In New Jersey, the absence of conflict-of-interest rules to prevent consultants benefiting private clients while doing state work is "disquieting," says PEER.
DEP now uses private consultants to work on water pollution discharge permits despite those same consultants representing water polluters.
Last month, Jackson appointed a Permit Efficiency Review Task Force but before that group had a chance to meet she said at the roundtable, "If we do not address how we deal with our permits department, I feel the department will collapse under the weight. Folks want predictability of outcomes and times and we are trying to bring that."
"Enforcing pollution standards is not the cause of economic distress in the Garden State," Wolfe concluded. "When the state's top environmental official uses the exact same rhetoric as industry lobbyists, it is time to beware."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.
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