New York Times  [Printer-friendly version]
August 19, 2006


By Tina Kelley

Five days a week for two years, parents in this rural township in
southern New Jersey would drop off their children, some as young as 8
months old, at Kiddie Kollege, a day care center where these days
wilted pansies go unattended outside the locked front door.

But what the parents did not know was that the unattractive one-story
building, about 30 miles south of Philadelphia, was the site of a
former mercury thermometer factory and that their children, who spent
up to 10 hours a day there, were being exposed to what the State
Department of Environmental Protection described last month as
unacceptably high levels of mercury.A third of the 60 children tested
have shown abnormally high levels of mercury in their systems. And
while experts have said the levels of mercury found in urine specimens
are not high enough to indicate health problems, they are high enough
to require long-term monitoring, and the ultimate health implications
for the children may not be known for years.

But what is clear, and what is now the subject of an investigation by
the state attorney general, is that the responsibility for cleaning up
and regulating the building slipped like quicksilver through the
fingers of state agencies, local officials and the building's owner,
who in February 2004 allowed Kiddie Kollege to open.

"I've had a lot of sleepless nights, and my wife cries on a daily
basis," said Sean McCleery, whose two children, Autumn, 6, and
Tristan, 3, tested above normal and must continue to be monitored.
"You think you're doing the best you can to protect your children, and
it ends up in a heartbreaking situation."

So while health experts are minimizing the long-term effects of the
contamination, that is little comfort to parents and the owner of
Kiddie Kollege, who closed the center on July 28, the day the state
determined that the building was not fit for occupancy.

For now, the state attorney general's office is investigating who was
responsible for allowing a building to open despite mercury vapor
levels at least 27 times the regulatory limit. Mercury, a naturally
occurring element, is toxic if inhaled or ingested. Symptoms of
mercury poisoning in children include insomnia, irritability, rashes
and peeling of hands and skin. Mercury vapors are heavier than air and
therefore more prevalent near the floor, where children nap and play.

A timeline released by the state's Department of Environmental
Protection describes how a series of missed opportunities and
incomplete communications over the past 12 years put children at risk.

Christopher M. Manganello, a lawyer in Pitman, N.J., who is
representing more than a dozen families, said: "As a pilot, you need a
chain of errors, not just one error, to cause a crash. If any one
error had not been made, this whole tragedy would not have occurred.
The ball got dropped."

The first missed step came on Jan. 1, 1994, when Accutherm Inc. of
Williamsburg, Va., which made thermometers in the one-story building
here, closed after 10 years in business. Under state environmental
law, a company is required to clean up any spills or toxic materials
left behind, even if it files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, as
the company did in March 1994.

But Accutherm did not comply with the department's directive to clean
all the discharges of mercury and other toxic material at the site.

Bill Wolfe, the head of an environmental watchdog group and a former
policy adviser at the environmental agency, said the state should have
put a lien on the property and erected signs and fences around it to
notify neighbors about the possible hazards. The New Jersey Spill
Compensation and Control Act allows for the department to clean up
hazards left behind, then to charge the polluter three times the cost.

"That's where the breakdown initially occurred," Mr. Wolfe said. "Had
that been addressed appropriately by D.E.P., all the other stuff would
not have occurred."

Lisa P. Jackson, the commissioner of the environmental department,
conceded in an interview this week that the agency needed better
tracking of contaminated sites, clearer cleanup priorities and
stronger enforcement efforts. "This is an example when all three of
those kind of collide in a bad way," she said. "It crystallizes some
of the things we need to do differently."

But she said other people involved in the case needed to do similar
soul-searching. "I won't run from the fact that D.E.P. played a role
in this, but lots of other people did too," she said. "And lots of
people are running to point fingers who need to be looked at really

The building remained vacant until 2001, when a local realtor, Jim
Sullivan Jr., bought it for back taxes and began renovations. Mr.
Sullivan's lawyer, Richard M. Hluchan, said his client knew that the
building had once housed a thermometer factory, but thought it could
be developed because a 1996 report issued by the federal Environmental
Protection Agency said the site did not belong on the Superfund list
and was not eligible for a federal cleanup because it "does not
present an immediate threat to human health or the environment."

In fact, only the state can issue a letter saying that cleanup
standards have been met. The federal determination simply meant that
hazards from the site were not reaching other properties.

But Mr. Hluchan said Mr. Sullivan also felt reassured because the
state environmental department never responded to a letter from Mr.
Sullivan's son addressed "To Whom it May Concern" requesting
information about any problems at the site.

Then in September 2003, a township construction official told the
state environmental department that the owner wanted to convert the
site to a day care center.

"N.J.D.E.P. informed the construction official that it was not
recommended to convert the site at that time," according to the
department's timeline, because it had not been certified as cleaned
and ready for development.

But the mayor of Franklin Township, Dave Ferrucci, said his staff had
no memory of any such phone conversation, and had erroneously relied
on the federal report. In October 2003, Mr. Hluchan said, Mr. Sullivan
was considering selling the property and again asked the state
environmental department for public records about the site. But he
said Mr. Sullivan received only the 1996 report, which did not
accurately reflect the problems at the site.

Mr. Sullivan decided not to sell the property, and after the township
granted permits for renovations, a zoning permit and a certificate of
occupancy, he leased the building to Kiddie Kollege, which opened in

"We weren't told anything, we had no idea," said Linda Turner, who was
a receptionist at the day care center and whose pregnant daughter,
Becky Baughman, owns the business. "I would not have even started to
work there and I'm sure she wouldn't put her child in there," Ms.
Turner said.

Then, in 2005, the property was removed from the state environmental
agency's booklet of known contaminated sites along with about 1,800
other sites that were considered low priority because, as Commissioner
Jackson said, it was believed to be empty.

Still, as for allowing a day care center on the site, she said, "The
one decision that made this into a screaming emergency is not one we

On April 11 this year, while inspecting low-priority sites, the
department discovered that the child care center was operating in the

Two weeks later, the state environmental department said it contacted
Mr. Sullivan to see if the site had been decontaminated, and according
to the timeline, he said the state had indicated there were no
problems there. But he was again referring to the 1996 federal report.

On July 28, tests that the state environmental department required
showed elevated levels of mercury vapor, and droplets of mercury were
later found in the basement and between the floor joists.

Some have questioned why the state did not close the day care center
as soon as the environmental agency discovered that mercury was
present, since officials knew that there was no letter certifying it
clean and ready for development. But Elaine Makatura, a spokeswoman
for the department, said that at that time it did not have test
results to confirm that the building was unsafe.

"In hindsight, in April, we could have shut it down regardless of home
rule, regardless of anything," Ms. Makatura said.

Despite her department's failure to provide complete information about
hazards at the property, Ms. Jackson criticized local officials for
missing her agency's warning against allowing the day care site, and
spoke harshly of Mr. Sullivan.

"For the owner to have hired an attorney and basically say at this
point, 'Well, I sent an undated letter with no address and I figured
it was clean and consider that a level of diligence,' I don't know how
he sleeps at night," she said.

The state's Division of Youth and Family Services, which licenses day
care centers, has also been criticized for not discovering the site on
the environmental department's public list of contaminated areas. But
Kate Bernyk, a spokeswoman, said the division was not required to
check that list, and is required to ensure only that day care centers
are free of lead, asbestos and radon gas, not mercury.

"We are already working with the Department of Environmental
Protection on how the two departments, along with other state and
local officials, can best share information to strengthen that safety
net," she said.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine has formed a team of cabinet members from the
Departments of Health, Community Affairs, Labor, Environment, and
Children and Families, to discuss ways to prevent similar chains of
errors from endangering the public.

Robert Jenkins, 44, a diesel mechanic who lives across the highway
from the center, had considered sending his children there, but he
said that in the end he did not want them crossing the busy street.

"I fault the state and the township too," Mr. Jenkins said. "The bad
thing about it is children are going to suffer. In the township,
everybody starts finger-pointing, but the children are going to

Copyright (c) 2006 The New York Times Company