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Smith – DEP Site Remediation Reform Plan A Good Start For Discussion

TRENTON – After a joint hearing of the Legislative environmental panels in the Statehouse today, Senator Bob Smith, the Chair of the Senate Environment Committee, said that site remediation reform would be a priority for his Committee, and that we must revolutionize the way site remediation and environmental cleanup is done in New Jersey.

“Saving our environment and protecting our natural resources must be a bipartisan Legislative priority every year,” said Senator Smith, D-Middlesex and Somerset. “Over the last few years, we’ve instituted some landmark environmental legislation, from the Highlands plan, to diesel emissions protections, to modernizing environmental regulations and penalties on polluters. However without a strong and efficient site remediation program turning our State’s polluted sites into viable property for redevelopment, any environmental advances of the last few years will be for naught.”

At today’s joint meeting of the Senate Environment Committee and the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee, Department of Environmental Protections (DEP) Commissioner Lisa Jackson outlined for lawmakers her Department’s recommendations for reform of the State’s site remediation program. Commissioner Jackson cited a backlog of more than 20,000 environmental cleanup cases in the current remediation program, and noted that the Department lacks the resources to drastically cut into that backlog without substantial change in how the State handles site remediation.

“We know that the DEP does the best work it can with the resources it has, but without fundamental transformation in the way New Jersey handles site remediation oversight, we will never clear the current backlog,” said Senator Smith. “As it stands right now, site remediation cases in New Jersey can linger for decades without adequate remedy. As clean, environmentally safe open space is at a premium, we cannot wait ten, twenty or thirty years for a polluter to rehabilitate a contaminated site.”

According to Senator Smith, the Department’s plan for reform is a multi-facetted approach to strengthen oversight of sensitive and highly polluted property while maximizing the efficiency of the site remediation program. Through the plan, environmental consultants who work on site remediation projects would be required to go through a licensure process developed by the DEP. In less severe cases of pollution, these licensed site professionals (LSPs) would be given an enhanced oversight and review role to increase the turn-around in site remediation cases in New Jersey.

“I don’t know if LSPs are the best way to enhance our State’s remediation oversight capabilities,” said Senator Smith. “In particular, I think that when you have a consultant working for the polluter, providing review of the polluter’s clean-up projects, you have the potential for conflict of interest and an accountability crisis which undermines the goals of site remediation. Perhaps a better approach would be for the applicant for site remediation to establish an escrow account which can be utilized by the NJ DEP to compensate trusted, licensed site professionals for their work on the project. I applaud the DEP for looking for a better, smarter way to commit our State’s environmental resources, but I think they need to go back to the drawing board on the LSP concept.”

In addition to the LSP proposal, the DEP would be given greater oversight and the ability to impose environmental remedies on polluters when the property is designated to be used for sensitive land uses, such as day care facilities, residential property and schools. The DEP would also offer incentives for polluters to seek permanent remedies, as opposed to temporary caps or land-use restrictions on polluted property, including the option to fulfill future responsibility for property cleanup by meeting DEP’s current remediation standards and paying into a self-insurance fund.

“I think the proposal we heard today was a great starting point to begin discussions in how to make the most of our State’s site remediation program,” said Senator Smith. “While there are elements which I think work, and elements which I think need to be reconsidered, I applaud Commissioner Jackson and Department officials for having the willingness to take a serious look at repairing a site remediation program which has lost its way. Site remediation is one of government’s most important environmental responsibilities, and we want to make the program as efficient, effective and just as possible.”