DEP Head – firmly back in the sand
Erosion of public right to know – DEP reverting to Whitman era
Back in 2004, when DEP scientists assembled the initial round of just 6 months of data on drinking water well contamination submitted under the recently enacted Private Well Testing Act, agency head Bradley M. Campbell made it a priority to inform NJ residents of the health risks posed by polluted wells and educate the public about the need to sample wells.
In a March 2004 press release, Campbell warned:
“The results demonstrate the importance of testing residents’ drinking water sources for a variety of contaminants that may need treatment to ensure a safe supply,” said Commissioner Campbell. “When contamination issues arise, county and local health officials step in to assist residents taking corrective action.”
“Families have the right to know whether their drinking water is safe when purchasing homes with private wells. “This program is successful due to support from local and county health officers across the state who provide information to persons involved with the private well testing process.”
(see: DEP Releases Initial Results of Private Well Testing Program
Home Buyers Learn of Water Quality during Property Transactions
Campbell was acting aggressively to reverse an informal “policy” of the Whitman Administration’s DEP, whereby scientific data – particularly with respect to controversial public health risks – was ignored, withheld, supressed and/or spun in a way to to downplay risks and avoid regulation of industry.
Unfortunately, DEP’s recent handling of the latest Private Well Testing Act data strongly suggests that – due to lack of leadership – DEP is reverting back to the Whitman model – don’t ask/don’t tell.
The initial 2004 results (of 5,179 wells sampled during first 6 months of the program) showed that 8% failed to meet drinking water standards. Those disturbing results prompted DEP Commissioner Campbell to accelerate and issue an interim public Report and Statewide press release to warn the public.
Now, 4 years later, after over 51,000 wells have been sampled, DEP has found that more than 12.5% of wells failed to meet drinking water standards and are unsafe. The failure rate increased by more than 50% (8% – 12.5%) and the number of wells sampled increased tenfold.
Yet this huge 50% increase in the failure rate and growing statewide extent of the problem apparently is of no interest to DEP, at least according to Barker Hamill, who oversees the PWTA program. Hamill cavalierly dismissed concerns and assumed – with no supporting data – that “a lot” of NJ households with polluted wells have treatment systems:
“Barker Hamill, DEP assistant director of water-supply operations, said the agency had not done more outreach because the report was not “particularly new information.”
A 2004 report outlined similar results, he said.
However, that report, based on tests of 5,179 wells from September 2002 to March 2003, found that 8 percent failed to meet standards. The new report shows a 50 percent rise in contaminated wells” (emphasis mine).
… Hamill termed New Jersey’s latest report more suited for “internal scientific interest . . . a statistical presentation for the counties. We haven’t had people asking for this type of stuff.”
“Barker Hamill, the DEP’s assistant director for water supply operations, said the results were consistent with a previous analysis of water tests and are no cause for alarm.
I don’t think anyone is hugely surprised,” he said. “These are raw water test results. People are not necessarily being exposed to these contaminants. I expect a lot of these wells have treatment on them.” http://www.dailyrecord.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080828/UPDATES01/80828005/1005/NEWS01
Someone needs to ask Hamill the following tough questions:
1. How can you call the 2008 data “not new information” when the failure rate increased by more than 50% and 5 years of implementation experience has exposed major flaws in the law and regulations?
2. How can you call the Report only for “internal scientific purposes” when DEP prominently issued the 2004 Report publicly with press release warnings?
3. How can you call the 2008 Report “consistent with the previous  Report” when the failure rate increased by more than 50% and DEP’s own “case study” in Byram highlights major flaws in the design of the program?
4. On what basis do you assume that “a lot” of NJ homes with polluted wells have treatment systems? What does “a lot” mean?
If satisfactory answers are not provided and problems immediately corrected (including public apology and clarification of these misleading press remarks), Mr. Hamill should be asked to retire.
(full disclosure: I worked for Campbell at the time in 2004. I was forced out of DEP as a whistleblower in 1994 by Governor Whitman for disclosing memo’s to the Governor that exposed her efforts to falsify and suppress science that showed significant health risks due to mercury contamination in freshwater fish).
[Update: 8/30/08 – just checked the DEP webpage to see if they had gotten around to issuing a press release on the PWTA Report. Not yet, but I did find that DEP made it a priority to issue a “good news” release about lifting the Delaware shellfish ban, but not “bad news” about drinking water wells.