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Probe Called For In Clifton Toxic High School Fiasco

Inspector General Asked Why “Kiddie Kollege” Law Failed

DEP Commissioner Lisa P. Jackson

[Update. See: Board defends handling of Brighton school site
See also my letter of clarification:Download file
The purchase of a polluted former industrial site for conversion to a Clifton High School without environmental testing shows that legislation enacted last year in the wake of similar scandals from toxic-laden schools and day-care centers is not working, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). PEER today asked New Jersey’s Inspector General to determine why anti-pollution rules were set aside by state and local environmental and educational officials.
The $11 million high school annex for 500 students in Passaic County is located in an old industrial site which used more than 50 types of toxic chemicals, including pesticides, arsenic, and a host of volatile organics. Despite this history, the school district did not perform a “due diligence” investigation into potential hazards before purchasing the property. In addition, according to an analysis of the Clifton case filed by PEER:
1) The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) allowed local construction to begin prior to certifying that the entire site required “no further action” to clean it up;
2) A stream running behind the property was not tested for contamination;
3) Soil samples were limited to only certain pollutants in selected locations;
4) the school district failed to notify the public and DEP about known toxic contamination of soil and groundwater at the sites; and
5) DEP expedited approvals at the behest of legislators and DEP Managers held private meetings that excluded concerned citizens.
“What is going on at the Clifton high school is precisely what the highly touted reforms enacted just a few months ago were supposed to prevent,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, referring to the “Kiddie Kollege” legislation, named after a day-care center was found to be operating in a mercury-laden former thermometer factory. “We want the Inspector General to look into this case, name names and hold responsible officials accountable; otherwise we can expect school construction debacles like this to recur on a regular basis.”
In a prior 2005 report, the Inspector General determined that New Jersey has spent nearly $330 million to purchase environmentally contaminated lands found by to be “patently unsuitable” for schools, including a radioactive former Manhattan Project facility in Union City and a Superfund site in Gloucester City. This latest experience in Clifton suggests that the underlying flaws in the school construction program remain unabated.
One aspect of the case PEER is asking the Inspector General to review is private meetings between elected officials who were promoting the project and top DEP officials. It is unclear whether DEP improperly expedited the school project in response to political pressure.
“The safety of a high school should not be hashed out behind closed doors with politicians without the parents present,” added Wolfe. “I am utterly amazed that New Jersey is still putting its children into facilities built on some of the nastiest toxic pits in the state.”

Read the PEER letter to the Inspector General
View the PEER analysis of problems with the Clifton high school
Look at e-mails about closed door meetings inside DEP
See the weaknesses in the school construction reforms enacted in 2007
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability.

  1. unprovincial
    May 20th, 2008 at 22:29 | #1

    Good Job, Bill. Hope someone pays attention this time.

  2. JerseyOpine
    May 20th, 2008 at 23:16 | #2

    I hope the IG follows through on all of this.

  3. ferdek
    May 21st, 2008 at 06:57 | #3

    No shame No conscience No Integrity. That’s Clifton and now they are in the spotlight of public scrutiny for very good reason. Thanks Bill for again exposing the ugly truth about politics and education in NJ. But the shameless behavior of Clifton officials is compounded by the failure of DEP and the Legislature to meet their fiduciary duties. And the Governor isn’t far behind as the gang of Enablers continues to sacrifice the public welfare for private gain.
    Where is the AG on this one? Why do we have to rely on “hope” that the IG take action? These are potentially criminal acts as well so where is the AG? And where are the legislators who represent the city? Where is the moral outrage from them that this kind of tragedy is on their doorstep?
    Rather than Hope why can’t we demand that state officials do their job once they get the relevant information? And why does it take a private citizen to bring this mismanagement to light when we are funding all sorts of “gatekeepers” to protect us from gross negligence?

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