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NJ Toxic School Controversies Spur New National Law

In the fine print of the energy bill recently signed into law by President Bush, Congress quietly inserted legislative language requiring EPA to develop voluntary guidelines for States on siting schools on toxic contaminated sites.

The law, signed by President Bush amends the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), amending the title for “healthy high performance schools”.

The legislative provisions originated in a bill (S. 506) sponsored earlier this year by Senator Lautenberg. Lautenberg deserves praise for his leadership on the issue.

Leading up to the bill, last year, in New Jersey, there were a series of high profile controversies regarding exposure of children to toxic chemicals while at schools and day care centers. These controversies illustrate the need for national legislation and national standards backed up by enforceable regulations.

Last year, the New Jersey’s School Construction Corporation (SCC), the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and local school officials came under scathing criticism for a series of fiasco’s where schools were found to be contaminated or located on improperly cleaned up toxic waste sites.

The watchdog group NJ PEER disclosed a memorandum of agreement between SCC and DEP that revealed that State officials knowingly allowed this to occur without the knowledge or consent of parents and local officials.

In response, the Attorney General and Inspector General conducted investigations; legislation abolished and replaced the SCC; the DEP has begun regulatory reforms, a local school Superintendent was fired, and the NJ Legislature enacted laws mandating community notification and indoor standards for schools and day care centers.

The new federal law is purely voluntary, does not include federal standards to restrict state and local school siting decisions, and does not address the underlying problems in flawed State site cleanup laws.

The law does not go nearly as far as legislation developed by Senator Menendez. See:

The Menendez bill was drafted in late 2006 in the wake of the “Kiddie Kollege” tragedy, where 60 infants and toddlers were poisoned by mercury in a south Jersey daycare center. The building was a converted thermometer factory that failed to comply with a 1995 DEP cleanup order.

The new law requires EPA to develop voluntary guidelines for indoor air quality and other environmental factors in school buildings, including limiting exposures to contaminated drinking water, lead, asbestos, mercury and other toxic chemicals.

But it avoided mandating necessary new protective standards for the cleanup of soil and groundwater at a school site.

EPA must, within 18 months, develop voluntary school site selection guidelines that account for the special vulnerability of children to pollution in any case for which “the potential for contamination at a potential school site exists.” But it avoided imposing a common sense national policy of restricting schools on toxic sites.

Recognizing that children in poor, urban, and minority communities bear disproportionate risks, the law includes new “environmental justice” provisions that direct EPA to develop guidelines for an environmental health program for schools. The programs must take into account environmental problems associated with exposure to a range of environmental contaminants, as well as environmental justice issues, such as “the special vulnerability of children in low-income and minority communities” . But it avoided given EJ communities real power in cleanup decisions.

While welcome, the federal law will do little to address gaping loopholes in New Jersey’s laws.

Those NJ laws still allow schools, day care centers, and housing to be built on toxic sites and old landfills. State cleanup standards are not protective of children’s health. Polluters are allowed to determine the cleanup plan and cap sites with contamination left underground.

The community is virtually shut out of the cleanup process and has no role in cleanup decisions School siting decisions are delegated to local officials with no state standards to safeguard children from bad local decisions. Local decisions have allowed schools to be sited and built on highly toxic sites, including a radioactive former Manhattan Project site in Union City and a chemical and radioactive Superfund site in Gloucester City.

For those interested in the details, for further reading, see:

Here is Governor Corzine’s Press Release on signing reform law:
Jan-11-07 Governor Corzine Signs Legislation to Improve Environmental Safety at Schools and Child Care Centers

Here are DEP reforms:
New community notification rules:

Here are new DEP daycare center environmental review requirements:

CORZINE URGED TO CLOSE LOOPHOLES IN TOXIC DAY-CARE BILL — Conditional Veto Could Strike Out Exemptions and Strengthen Safeguards

NEW JERSEY LEAVES DOOR OPEN FOR MORE SCHOOLS ON TOXIC SITES — Governor’s “Working Group” Dodges Question of Acquiring Toxic Land for Schools

NEW JERSEY SCHOOL CONSTRUCTION REFORM GETS FAILING MARKS — No Environmental Reviews Prior to Building More Schools on Toxic Sites

TOXIC SCHOOL SCANDAL SPOTLIGHTS WEAK NEW JERSEY LAW — Parents Get No Notice of Child’s Exposure in Deregulated State Clean-Up Program

60 MORE NEW JERSEY DAY-CARE CENTERS NAMED ON TOXIC WARNINGS — Hundreds of Homes, Schools and Other Facilities May Also Be Vulnerable

NEW JERSEY TOXIC DAY CARE REFORM BILL STILL MISSES THE MARK — State Grasping for Quick Fixes to Broken Brownfields Program

CALL FOR INSPECTOR GENERAL TO HEAD MERCURY DAY-CARE PROBE — Severe Toxic Problems Acknowledged in 2002 Internal “Vulnerability Assessment”

MERCURY-LADEN DAY-CARE CENTER IN NEW JERSEY IS NO ANOMALY — Lax State Brownfield Laws Make Tragedy an “Accident Waiting to Happen”

RADIOACTIVE SCHOOL SITE IS TIP OF NEW JERSEY TOXIC ICEBERG — Over 100 School Site approvals expedited under Secret Deal


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