Rachel's Democracy & Healthy News #873, September 21, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: President Bush is eliminating EPA's scientific capacity. This has reduced the federal agency's ability to enforce minimum standards for weak state programs like the one in New Jersey aimed at controlling toxic waste.]

By Peter Montague[1]

To recap from last week: For six years, President Bush has been systematically dismantling the scientific capabilities of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The President has begun closing EPA's research libraries -- which the EPA enforcement staff relies upon for crucial information to do their jobs. The President is also closing EPA scientific laboratories, thus diminishing the agency's ability to judge which problems are really serious and which are less so. As a result, this President's legacy will be accelerated deterioration of the natural environment, yet oddly this may be a political plus among Republicans. Many of the GOP's most faithful supporters embrace environmental deterioration as evidence that the End Times are upon us, when Jesus will return to Earth.

As EPA loses its scientific capabilities, the effects are being felt at the state level, because this is where EPA used to provide backbone for weak state agencies.

At the state level, wealthy polluters and land developers put enormous pressure on state agencies to cut corners -- and these wealthy few often can have their way with state government because they fund the reelection campaigns of governors, mayors, county councils, judges, and other local lights. Federal EPA is supposed to provide a floor, below which even the most craven politician cannot sink. As the Bush plan unfolds, EPA is losing its capacity to play that crucial role.

The pressure to cut corners -- to fill in wetlands, pave over farms, declare toxic wastes "safe," and so on -- is relentless in all states, even the wealthy ones. Take New Jersey, which is the wealthiest state in the union, measured by annual income per person.

New Jersey is a small place with 8 million inhabitants, and it is heavily polluted. It also has the highest cancer rate among all the states (2002 data). The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) now lists 16,000 contaminated sites throughout the state, and roughly 200 to 300 new sites are reportedly added to the list each month. Back in the early 1990s, wealthy developers saw a chance to make money "redeveloping" these toxic sites, and they began referring to them as "brownfields" -- as if to suggest that these pots of poison are like farm fields at harvest time, with corn stalks silhouetted against the sunset. Nothing could be further from the truth. These sites are often dripping with the nastiest chemicals you can imagine -- combinations of radioactive waste, black oily goo, dioxins, PCBs, mercury, lead, chromium, TCE, PCE, perchlorate, dozens of pesticides, benzene, jet fuel, miscellaneous chlorinated solvents and on and on.

The Superfund toxic waste cleanup law was sponsored by Jim Florio when he represented New Jersey in Congress, 1975-1990 -- which made Mr. Florio the darling of environmentalists. However, late in his single term as governor of N.J., 1990-1994, Mr. Florio began to relax the rules for cleaning up contaminated sites, to make it easier for developers to build on "brownfields." Mr. Florio's successor, Republican Christie Whitman (N.J. governor, 1994-2001, and then head of U.S. EPA), relaxed the N.J. cleanup rules even further, until these rules are now commonly described as "pave and wave." Got a toxic site? Pave it over with a thin layer of asphalt or a plastic tarp -- or put a golf course over it, or a grammar school or a condo development -- and wave the problem goodbye. When she was governor, Ms. Whitman's slogan was, "New Jersey is Open for Business."

Lax cleanup standards were intended to help developers make money. Brownfields are cheap to buy but expensive to clean up. However, after "cleanup" was redefined to include covering with a plastic tarp or a parking lot, then the profit-potential of "brownfields" soared.

Democrats and environmentalists love to blame Ms. Whitman for this creative redefinition of "cleanup." But Democrats have controlled New Jersey with large majorities since Ms. Whitman left office 5 years ago and the cleanup rules haven't changed -- except perhaps to become even more permissive.

Of course relaxing the cleanup standards is never justified as a gift to wealthy developers. It is justified as a solemn obligation to the urban poor, who desperately need jobs and affordable housing, it is true. So -- the story goes -- the "pave and wave" approach to toxic sites is a benevolent act, promoting needed development in blighted urban zones. Unfortunately, a basic law of the universe -- the law of entropy -- guarantees that toxic chemicals left in the ground will eventually migrate away from their original location and enter air, water, soil, worms, birds, fish, insects, mammals -- the food web -- and eventually people. Plastic tarps and asphalt doilies will not halt this process. And so the state of New Jersey -- and all its inhabitants -- are now contaminated with hundreds of industrial poisons. The New Jersey DEP has acknowledged that pollution causes roughly 4,100 new cancers in New Jersey each year -- and it's pretty easy to make the case that this is the tip of a large, unspoken iceberg. There's a reason why New Jersey is the No. 1 in cancer nationwide.

Today, former governor Jim Florio is in the business of building big- box stores on contaminated sites, and Christie Todd Whitman runs her own environmental consulting firm, helping wealthy developers navigate the state's environmental laws to maximize gain. Republican or Democrat, it matters not. The point is to make money building on toxic sites without going to the expense of cleaning them thoroughly. With the "pave and wave" approach, the state's 16,000 "brownfields" are no longer a deadly liability -- they have become a vehicle for expressing charitable concern for the urban poor and a new source of wealth for the already-wealthy.

However, everyone now acknowledges that, from a public health perspective, the system is completely broken.

This fact was driven home this summer by a series of revelations that shocked even the most cynical among us:

** On August 4th, the Courier-Post in Cherry Hill revealed that Kiddie Kollege, a day-care center in south Jersey, had been operating for two years in a former mercury-thermometer factory in rural Franklinville. When tested, 1/3rd of the children -- ranging in age from 8 months to 13 years -- showed excessive mercury in their urine, as did one adult staff member.

The toxic Kiddie Kollege had been discovered on April 11 by a DEP employee who "had a hunch" that something might be wrong and initiated air tests. But it was not until July 28 that DEP officials provided facts to the day-care operator, who promptly shut down the Kollege. "In hindsight, in April, we could have shut it down regardless of home rule, regardless of anything," Elaine Makatura, a DEP spokesperson, told the New York Times.

** By mid-August, two other day-care centers had been discovered built on contaminated sites. The "Through the Years" daycare was discovered on a site contaminated with heating oil and PCBs less than a mile from Kiddie Kollege. And "The Ultimate Scholar" daycare in Toms River, N.J., closed August 10 after high levels of tetrachloroethylene -- dry cleaning fluid -- were discovered in a play area.

Soon the DEP acknowledged that 700 of the state's 4,200 daycare centers are operating within 400 feet of toxic sites.

But then the plot thickened.

By August 16, news reporter Tim Zatzariny, Jr. of the Courier-Post in Cherry Hill revealed that the Kiddie Kollege daycare site had been mysteriously removed from the DEP's list of 16,000 contaminated properties, along with 1,845 other toxic sites that disappeared from the DEP list some time between 2002 and 2005.

Toxic sites removed from the list included 50 landfills; 100 chemical companies; a former Nike missile site; the Bader Field Airport in Atlantic City; Camden Iron & Metal, Inc., and Penn Jersey Rubber & Waste Company, both in Camden; Vanguard Vinyl Siding of Gloucester City, and so on.

Reporters all over the state jumped on the story, eager to discover who had removed the 1,846 toxic sites from the list. To this day, no one has publicly revealed the name of the culprit, but reporters have printed candid confessions by several top state officials.

The 1,846 sites disappeared from the list while Bradley M. Campbell was chief of DEP, serving Democratic governor James McGreevey -- another darling of environmentalists who worked aggressively to help him into office. But environmentalists got stabbed in the back by Mr. McGreevey and by Mr. Campbell. Based on Mr. Campbell's performance, Jeff Tittel, head of the New Jersey Sierra Club, told a reporter, "The name of the game for Campbell was letting rich sponsors of [governor] Jim McGreevey build on tainted land," said Tittel. "Taking contaminated sites off the books makes more land available for the developers."

Mr. Campbell reportedly "bristled" at the suggestion that his DEP gave preferential treatment to rich builders. But he acknowledged that DEP, under his leadership, was in complete disarray, unable to even keep a tally of toxic sites, much less clean them up: "The DEP's professional staff was so overwhelmed, he said, that it was impossible to even pinpoint the number of contaminated sites and accurately chart the agency's progress in dealing with them," the Bergen Record reported him saying in an interview.

Other DEP employees and former employees piled on. It turned out that DEP has only 175 "case managers" assigned to the 16,000 toxic sites, for an average of 91 sites per case manager. One former DEP case manager, Thomas McKee, recalled having close to 100 cases assigned to him for supervision in the early 1990s [which were Florio years]. A dysfunctional bureaucracy further hampered his work, he said. "Deadlines for cleanup progress are not enforced; there is no priority system and no real tracking and reporting system," McKee told Alexander Lane of the Newark Star-Ledger.

As a result, toxic sites remain on the DEP's list for decades. "One former chemical company site in South Brunswick has been identified as contaminated since 1981 and has not been cleaned up. The same goes for a radium company in Orange, identified by the DEP as a contaminated site in 1984. A metal finishing company site in Bound Brook has been contaminated since 1985 and is still an active case," Lane reported.

On August 27 Lane revealed the dirty little secret that no one had ever talked about in print before: "One current [DEP] case manager spoke openly about the political pressure brought to bear for the agency to cut corners. One current case manager, Amil Singh, said heavy caseloads account for the notoriously low morale in the site remediation department.

"But he also said the department was plagued by a less tangible problem: political pressure.

"It is particularly intense when a redevelopment project or real estate transaction at a contaminated site is being held up pending a 'no further action' letter -- a certification that a cleanup is complete -- from the department, he said.

"'There's a lot of pressure on the case managers to take certain actions in order to appease the local governments and make property move,' Singh said. 'I've been pressured to produce NFAs (no further action letters) by my own [DEP] management,'" Singh said.

The current DEP chief is Lisa P. Jackson, a no-nonsense former EPA worker. Ms. Jackson told the New York Times that her agency needs "better tracking of contaminated sites, clearer cleanup priorities and stronger enforcement efforts." This sounds good.

Will Democratic Governor Jon Corzine -- current darling of the state's environmentalists who helped him gain office -- initiate the needed reforms to permanently clean up toxic sites across the state? So far Mr. Corzine has spent his time assuring everyone that no new daycare centers will be built in toxic waste sites -- as if New Jersey's toxic waste problems ended with daycare centers.

A larger question is, Can elected officials of either party protect public health and give us environmental justice by standing up to the monied interests who paid for their election campaigns?

Can pigs fly?

Campaign finance reform -- getting private money out of our elections -- is still an essential priority. Without it, other reforms will be half-baked at best.


[1] I would like to acknowledge one of the real heroes in this story -- Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and its New Jersey field director, Bill Wolfe, a former senior analyst at DEP. As this story evolved, it was Wolfe who helped news reporters understand the ins and outs of arcane cleanup regulations, suggesting where they should be looking to find sleeping dogs and smoking guns.