The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (pg. A1), August 18, 2006
TAINTED SITES ERASED IN A BLINK
1,800 Cut From DEP List With No Notice
By Jeff Pillets, Trenton Bureau
Engineers say the old Kingsland Landfill in Lyndhurst harbors a stew of industrial and household waste, a toxic goop that accumulated uring a half-century of unregulated dumping.But the Meadowlands dump -- and nearly 300 other of the most polluted properties in Bergen and Passaic counties -- were quietly removed from New Jersey's official contaminated site list last year.
Statewide, more than 1,800 sites vanished from the watch list in 2005 without any public notice from the keeper of the list, the Department of Environmental Protection. Contaminated chemical plants, leaky gas stations, airports with tainted groundwater -- all stricken from the list even though they have not been cleaned or contained.
"In all my years, I've never seen a government act this irresponsibly," said Jeff Tittel, head of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "It's way more than outrageous. It's dangerous."
Tittel and other watchdogs are now calling for a criminal investigation into the state's handling of the contaminated-site information. They say innocent people buying land on or near one of the tainted properties were put at risk by negligent state regulators who withheld basic data.
As a chilling case in point, they point to the Kiddie Kollege, a day- care center in Gloucester County. The facility closed last month when elevated levels of mercury were found in the ground, the air and bodies of about one-third of 60 students and staffers.
Kiddie Kollege, it turns out, had been the site of a thermometer factory that was taken off the state's contaminated site list last year. The school's owner said he never knew about the mercury.
"Kids' skin was literally starting to peel," said Bill Wolfe, a former DEP executive who is now director of the non-profit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "How can a thermometer plant with known contamination be taken off a watch list?"
The answer to that question remains a mystery.
DEP officials -- who hurriedly re-posted the list on the agency's Web site this week as the Kiddie Kollege controversy grew -- said Thursday that they had no idea how the sites were removed or who removed them.
But they rejected the notion that the agency ever certified the sites as clean or lost track of them in their internal files.
"Just because some sites were not posted for a period does not mean we weren't keeping track of them or continuing to clean them up," said Bill Corcory, an official in the agency's Site Remediation Office.
Corcory said his office keeps data on about 14,000 sites known or suspected to be contaminated statewide. The 1,846 contaminated properties re-posted by the DEP this week are only part of that larger pool, Corcory said.
"If someone is concerned a piece of property might be contaminated, they should just pick up the phone and ask us," he said.
Leading environmentalists claim the answer to the mystery of the vanished sites lies with former DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell, who led the agency from 2002 until the end of last year.
Campbell, according to longtime detractors like Tittel and Wolfe, personally ordered the hazardous list slashed to pare down the embarrassing backlog of sites the agency had failed to clean up. They also assert that Campbell consistently worked to expedite approvals for influential developers who underwrote the political career of his boss, former Gov. James E. McGreevey.
While Campbell instituted several key reforms, such as the historic Highlands Protection Act, he also blessed controversial development projects in brownfields from Camden to the Meadowlands.
"The name of the game for Campbell was letting rich sponsors of Jim McGreevey build on tainted land," said Tittel. "Taking contaminated sites off the books makes more land available for the developers. But it doesn't leave the public any safer."
Campbell bristled at the notion that his DEP gave preferential treatment to rich builders, and said he never faced political pressure from McGreevey or his backers. He said he was surprised to learn that the agency de-listed nearly 1,900 sites, and insists he would not have approved the removal of any tainted sites from DEP scrutiny.
But the former commissioner acknowledged Thursday that he was "deeply frustrated with the unacceptable number" of cases building up in the agency's files. He said there were literally dozens of sites with suspected contamination that the agency was never even able to investigate, let alone clean 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 fact is that there was a hodgepodge of hazardous site lists, a jumble of information that made it impossible to get hold of what was out there," Campbell said in an interview Thursday. "I was constantly frustrated in my efforts to get control of the backlog and manage the program."
Campbell said he ordered staffers to reevaluate the lists, but in an effort to clarify them, not reduce the number of polluted sites. If the agency's staff misunderstood his directions to reevaluate the case log of polluted sites, Campbell said, it would be easy to see why.
"These people were overworked and had been overworked for years because the program was perennially understaffed," said Campbell, who now works at a law firm led by McGreevey's former attorney general, David Samson. "I don't think anybody deliberately removed sites that were known to be bad."
The state Attorney General's Office is now looking into the events leading up to the closing of Kiddie Kollege. Although high levels of mercury found in staffers and students at the facility have fallen, parents are concerned about possible long-term effects of the exposure.
Anthony Coley, a spokesman for Governor Corzine, said the governor will do everything he can to prevent a similar incident.
"If the previous administration placed children and the people of New Jersey in any jeopardy, it's a matter of highest priority for us to set things straight," he said.
On the Web
For the full list of known contaminated sites in New Jersey, visit nj.gov/dep/srp/kcs-nj/
Copyright (c) 2006 North Jersey Media Group Inc.