New York Times, 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 filed.

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 mercury.

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