LYNDHURST, N.J. -- New Jersey is rolling out an ambitious and highly controversial scheme to clean up industrial waste sites, modeled on a Massachusetts program that critics say has a mixed record.
The state Department of Environmental Protection is aiming over the next three years to systematically free itself from direct responsibility for cleaning up more than 10,000 polluted brownfields and several Superfund sites. DEP plans to hand over remediation planning and monitoring to contractors hired by owners of contaminated properties.
In anticipation of the shift, brownfield rehabilitation and engineering professionals launched the Licensed Site Remediation Professionals Association, a trade group whose members will carry out the plan that Gov. Jon Corzine (D) signed into law May 7, referred to by most as the LSRP initiative.
The trade group, which aims to have 500 to 1,000 members by year's end, expects new applications to flow in shortly, and officials say DEP should start rolling out the first temporary licenses by August while an oversight board -- whose members will be appointed by the governor and state Senate -- is formed.
"We expect applications to be out by July," said Nick DeRose, a principal at Langan Engineering and head of the LSRP Association Steering Committee. "Hopefully in August, certainly by September, we expect there will be the first licensed site remediation professionals to take on these new cases as of Nov. 3."
But environmental groups say they will never stop opposing the new program. They vow litigation and loud denouncements of failures they say are inevitable.
Though DEP has been criticized by activists and even by U.S. EPA for bungling Superfund and brownfield cleanups for most of this decade, virtually all New Jersey green groups stand opposed to the plan, which they fear will lead to collusion between remediation engineers and site owners who pay them.
"We could not think of a worse direction that the state should be going," said Robert Spiegel, director of the Edison Wetlands Association, a group now celebrating its 20th anniversary fighting property contamination.
The new initiative is tantamount to "turning over the cleanup of contaminated sites to the people that caused the contamination in many cases to begin with," Spiegel said.
For decades, New Jersey has served as the United States' chemical factory. As manufacturing shifted to the Midwest or overseas, companies abandoned thousands of properties where legal and illegal dumping occurred on a daily basis.
The state's residents are acutely aware of industry's legacy.
New Jersey is home to 114 contaminated properties listed on EPA's National Priority List -- more Superfund sites than any other state. By contrast, California, vastly larger than New Jersey with four times the population, has 94 sites. Massachusetts has 37. Every New Jersey county hosts at least one NPL site, and most have at least three.
Some notorious examples include the Diamond Alkali site in Newark. The Vietnam War-era herbicide Agent Orange was manufactured there, and waste dumping destroyed the lower reaches of the Passaic River.
A new rail line being built to connect Manhattan to the Meadowlands Sports Complex rolls right over the Universal Oil Products Superfund site, where the company for which it is named dumped 4.5 million gallons of benzene, lead and other petrochemical wastes. DEP recently lost control of that site, as it has been sitting on the National Priority List for more than 20 years.
But the number of federal Superfund sites here pales in comparison to smaller polluted tracts.
DEP says it is now responsible for about 23,000 contaminated and potentially contaminated properties. At least 10,000 of these fall under state brownfield ordinances and are in need of swift rehabilitation.
Critics say cleanups are not occurring because under former DEP chief Lisa Jackson, who is now EPA's administrator, the state stopped prioritizing the most serious brownfields. Environmentalists also argue that DEP relies too heavily on property owners to truthfully report problems.
Last year, EPA investigators chided the state agency for lax enforcement.
But DEP officials say they are simply overwhelmed by the vastness of the problem. And the agency's defenders point to a series of budget and staff cuts by a succession of governors, including Corzine.
So last month, the state Legislature overwhelmingly voted to adopt the new plan, which developers lobbied heavily in favor of.
The initiative, a complete overhaul of how regulators manage the state's most pressing environmental challenge, was strongly supported by Jackson back when she headed DEP and helped devise the plan. Critics who opposed Jackson's appointment to EPA pointed to the cleanup scheme, offering it as an example of how she neglected New Jersey's lingering Superfund and brownfield cleanup problems while directing more energy toward climate change initiatives.
Under the scheme -- dubbed the "Massachusetts model," as drafters of the bill leaned heavily on that state's existing program for inspiration -- DEP must move quickly to prepare forms and begin accepting applications for temporary licenses from engineering consultants over the next three months.
Any new brownfield cases coming to DEP's attention after Nov. 3 will be handled entirely by private contractors under the new system.
DEP will then gradually turn over its existing brownfield cases to private contractors, while the governor seeks out individuals to serve on the new board and nominates them for Senate approval. Experts say that process should take about a year.
Once the board is established, temporary license holders will have to get new permanent licenses. From there DEP has until May 7, 2012, to turn over its entire brownfield caseload to the board.
DEP officials say they are looking forward to the transition, as it will free up the understaffed agency to better zero in on New Jersey's environmental problems. The relationship with the new LSRP association and state regulators has yet to be defined.
"We expect that this particular group will be a conduit between licensed site professionals and the DEP, but it will be up to the group to define its exact role," DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said.
Are rules strict enough?
Supporters say the cleanup contractors will have to comply with a suite of strict rules developed by DEP and the forthcoming board. Aside from minimum education and experience requirements, licensed contractors will have to take a state-administered test and submit to continuing education to keep their licenses. Those found breaking the rules will have their licenses revoked and could face stiff civil and even criminal penalties.
"Professionals have their license at stake, just like an attorney would have their license at stake," said Sue Boyle, senior environmental practice leader at GEI Consultants. "It will increase the level of professionalism in the profession because the license now has meaning."
Supporters also say the Massachusetts program has been a success, but Spiegel at Edison Wetlands disputes this.
"Like every other piece of legislation that has weakened environmental regulation, once the bill is signed and it moves forward and the public stops paying attention, they're going to, one by one, weaken or take out those provisions," Spiegel contends. "What we're going to have to do is very, very closely monitor the failures of this program, because there's not going to be successes here."
Anyone can report abuses to the new board, and New Jersey's green groups are vowing to do just that.