New York Times  [Printer-friendly version]
September 1, 2006


By Tina Kelley

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection knew in 1994
that a building that later housed a Gloucester County day care center
was so dangerous that state inspectors were instructed to use
respirators when entering the building, according to an internal memo
obtained by The New York Times yesterday.

But the site remained contaminated, and as far as the department knew,
unoccupied, until inspectors visited it in April and found that Kiddie
Kollege, a day care center serving children as young as 8 months old,
was operating in the building. Yet the center, which is in Franklin
Township, was allowed to remain open for more than three months, until
state environmental investigators determined in late July that the
site was still contaminated.On July 28, when state tests showed
mercury vapor levels at least 27 times the regulatory limit, the
center voluntarily closed. It had served at least 60 children on the
site for the past two years. One-third of those children showed
elevated levels of mercury in their systems, and will require
continued medical monitoring.

The internal memo, dated Oct. 12, 1994, said "Level C at a minimum is
required for entry into the building," meaning respirators were
required, said Bill Wolfe, a former department employee who is the
director of New Jersey Public Employees for Environmental
Responsibility, a watchdog group that provided a copy of the memo.

Darlene Yuhas, a Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman,
said she could not confirm that the memo, a copy of which was faxed to
her, came from the department, but Mr. Wolfe said it was obtained from
the department's files through an open public records request he had

As for the memo, Ron Corcory, the assistant director of the
department's site remediation program, said, "For people to sit back
and say, 'Should they have known in April?' the analogy is, for the
16,000 sites, we should close every building and then start an
investigation. That's not the reality."

But Mr. Wolfe said that the department should have at least notified
the center's operators about the building's potential dangers.

"Why didn't somebody have the common sense to pick up the phone and
call the operator of the facility and say, 'Look, we have a reasonable
concern?' " he asked. "That's part of the culture of the program that
needs to be reformed."

Irene Kropp, the assistant commissioner for site remediation and waste
management, replied, "We did not internally know of any risks at that
time, so we didn't have any discussion about notifying the parents."

The department has sent 100 inspectors to investigate 1,846
contaminated sites that had not been assigned case managers, work that
should be completed in a week.

Of the state's 4,200 day care centers, the department is investigating
about 700, those that are within 400 feet of contaminated sites. The
state is notifying all day care centers to talk to their local health
departments or an environmental consultant about possible nearby
environmental hazards, and reviewing pending applications for day care
licenses for environmental concerns.

This week the Department of Environmental Protection received a signed
agreement from the Gloucester County building's owner, Jim Sullivan
Inc., regarding how and when the site will be cleaned up. But the
agreement, an administrative consent order, will not be made public
until the department signs it, Ms. Yuhas said.

In 1995 the department ordered the former owner, Accutherm Inc. of
Williamsburg, Va., a maker of mercury thermometers, to clean up the
site, but the company had filed for bankruptcy protection and the
department never enforced the order.

On Tuesday, Senator Frank R. Lautenberg requested that the federal
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention monitor all children and
adults who were exposed to mercury in the building, not just those 20
out of 60 children who showed abnormally high levels of mercury in
their systems. He also asked the Environmental Protection Agency to
test the homes of former Kiddie Kollege children for the presence of

The Department of Children and Families, which will develop the new
rules, has posted the list of all licensed child care centers on its
Web site, and the Department of Environmental Protection has a list of
its 16,000 known contaminated sites on its Web site. Those lists are
being cross-checked by the two agencies, said Tom Bell, a spokesman
for the Children and Families Department.

Copyright (c) 2006 The New York Times Company