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DEP = “Deny Every Problem”

March 16th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Why is it so hard for the NJ Department of Environmental Protection to acknowledge environmental problems and communicate risks?

DEP Headquarters – 401 East State Street, Trenton, NJ. This massive building houses over 3,000 DEP employees.
But where is their VOICE? And what happened to their MISSION?

Sometimes I read an environmental story that cries out for interpretation or comment. Typically, it is something technical, in the fine print, or otherwise buried in the news story that illustrates a much larger problem that the public or guy in the street does not understand, or that completely contradicts the general public understanding or assumptions about how things work.
Often, due to complexity, news reporters themselves either: 1) do not fully understand the issue; 2) dismiss it as “inside baseball”, “red tape”, or “bureaucracy”; or 3) just fail to communicate the significance – something in need of an insider’s explanation.
Today’s story about DEP’s views of the drinking water in Pequannock really fits the bill:
Pequannock water to get $4M fix
Monday, March 16, 2009

In case anybody didn’t notice, the two DEP spokespersons quoted in the story managed simultaneously to contradict each other, DENY the problem, and point fingers elsewhere.
The underlying problem is not an earth shattering story or major environmental or public health risk.
It does, however – perfectly – illustrate a serious lack of leadership and a totally dysfunctional DEP bureaucracy.
Barker Hamill, head of DEP’s “Safe Drinking Water” program, downplayed the signifcance of the problem, while pointing fingers at another DEP program (certainly not his!), the DEP storwater management program:
“The sodium levels in the township water do not raise alarm with the state. Barker Hamill, assistant director of Water Supply Operations for the state Department of Environmental Protection, compared the sodium in Pequannock’s drinking water to eating three potato chips….
State officials are even divided over what role road salting plays in sodium found in drinking water.
Hamill was quick to point to it as a factor. “Generally speaking, whenever we see a lot of sodium problems, particularly in northern as opposed to southern New Jersey, we feel it is associated with road salting,” Hamill said.”

[Full disclosure: I have no intention of singling out Barker Hamill personally, but I previously have written about – and denounced- Hamill’s penchant for denial of water supply risks (see the below post, which was critically reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer). This is not an individual problem – Hamill is just following orders and reflecting the DEP culture. Recent examples: DEP Managers support privatization and deregulation of the toxic site cleanup program, despite the fact that they are well aware that such a policy has caused cleanup delays at thousands of festering toxic sites. Even more remarkably, a former DEP Commissioner made excuses and did not apologize, even when questioned by the US Senate, for failing to notify parents of 60 toddlers- for over 14 weeks – that their children were exposed to toxic mercury in a day care center. So the problems at DEP are deep and systemic, see NY Times story:
Memo Shows Agency Knew of Danger in Child Care Building
See also:
DEP Head – firmly back in the sand – Erosion of public right to know – DEP reverting to Whitman era
But let’s get back to today’s Pequannock drinking water story that illustrates the larger systemic problems. Barry Chalofsky, head of DEP’s storm water management program – which regulates road salt storage and application – flat out contradicted Hamill. No problem Chalofsky said, and certainly no problem in enforcing DEP Stormwater management regulations or municipal stormwater permits. Besides, according to Chalofsky’s logic, it takes so long to see a problem, any enforcement is impossible (but if this is true, why even have a DEP? Maybe DEP should watch “CSI” or “Cold Cases”?):
But Barry Chalofsky, chief of the DEP’s Bureau of Nonpoint Pollution Control, has a more cautious view.
“If truly salt was the issue than (sic) we would be seeing problems all over the state and we are not,” Chalofsky said. “People are going to jump on the first thing they see, and the first thing they see is salting roads or salt piles.”

Sodium can take years to seep into underground water sources. By the time it’s detected, the source, such as an improperly stored municipal salt pile, could be long gone, Chalofsky said
The issue here is not the health risks or environmental impacts of road salt.
The issue here – bluntly – is what the hell is going on at DEP and how is it allowed to persist?
Hamill and Chalofsky’s quotes illustrate – in a perverse nutshell – an uncoordinated, poorly managed, and dysfunctional bureaucracy.
A place where so called “leaders” downplay problems and dodge accountability. These two middle level mangers have made long and successful careers at DEP doing exactly that.
DEP is not a place where taking the initiative and solving problems is rewarded, but a place where dodging accountability and responsibility is. Where NO MY JOB! pays career dividends.
DEP is not a place where serving and educating the public are absolute principles, but where misleading and manipulating the public are not only tolerated, but the rule.
DEP is not a place where professionals manage problems, but where one gets rewarded by protecting bureaucratic turf, defending poorly designed and totally uncoordinated “stove-pipe” regulatory programs, and following orders.
I spent the bulk of my professional career at DEP and remain committed to the public interest and a strong DEP.
But it it stuff like this that makes me want to call for total abolition of DEP as we know it – to tear it down, clean house, and start from scratch.
The DEP’s stormwater management and drinking water programs are mature – they have operated in some form for over 25 years.
If after all these years of experience, they can’t solve, communicate, or coordinate something as relatively simple and low cost like road salt, how can they possibly address significant and complex challenges?

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  1. JerseyOpine
    March 16th, 2009 at 22:14 | #1

    If the politicians would leave the DEP alone, they’d be in much better shape.
    Look at the patronage pit Corzine has enjoyed with Jackson’s tenure as head of the agency.

  2. 14yrbumpkin
    March 17th, 2009 at 02:13 | #2

    Maybe they do contradict each other but I think it’s a hopeful sign that the two middle managers spoke about their own theories without first checking with the DEP’s press office to make sure they were getting the official story right. That kind of honesty is too rare at DEP and is refreshing.

  3. nohesitation
    March 17th, 2009 at 09:32 | #3

    Hey JerseyOpine – the real “patronage” at DEP is less a function of political staff appointments of hacks, but of what Corzine has gotten DEP to DO and not DO (regulate industry and enforce laws).
    Corzine and Lisa Jackson, with the help of hack Asst. Commissioner Irene Kropp, developed the Toxic Site Cleanup privatization bill. The bill – ALONE – is a billion dollar giveaway to corporate polluters and redevelopers, who now won’t have to spend money to cleanup sites.
    And that bill is just what we KNOW about – there are hundreds of other permits and approvals rammed through DEP that are worth billions to developers and corporate NJ.
    For an example of this, just look at Encap and think about hundreds of otherh mini-Encaps that we know nothing about!

  4. nohesitation
    March 17th, 2009 at 09:35 | #4

    Hey 14yrbumpkin – I agree with you that it is preferable that DEP staff are allowed to talk to press before clearing it with the press office (but I would BET that the DEP press office was on the phone or in the room when these staffers spoke with the reporter. That ALWAYS has been the practice.).
    But, please, don’t confuse those bureaucratic CYA comments with “theories”!

  5. disseddep
    March 17th, 2009 at 16:25 | #5

    You all are all right! But one correction, nohestitation. It is the political hacks in DEP that are pushing Corzine’s/Jackson’s silencing (murdering) of environmental protections at DEP. This comes with full support of Irene Kropp. DEP staff are good, smart people who want to protect the envirionment. Get ride of all Ass Commissioners and it would be a better place – a place where staff could protect human health and the environment. Look at another example – chromium. A disgrace!

  6. nohesitation
    March 17th, 2009 at 16:36 | #6

    disseddep – In order for your comment to be a “correction”, you must first identify the error.
    I never said anything about DEP staff –
    The point I was trying to make is that “patronage” is widely perceived as a problem with giving jobs to unqualified people – a waste of taxpayer dollars. But that is not the biggest problem with patronage at DEP. I was making the point that those patrongage appointees ram thru all sorts of VERY bad decisions – the LSP privatization bill being only just one – and highly visible. How many deals has Nancy Wittenberg cut (Nancy is former lobbyist for the NJ Builders Assc and a DEP Assistant Commissioner for Environmental Regulation (i.e. she oversees permits)
    I worked at DEP for 13 years – from the bottom of the agency to the top (Commissioner’s Office). I served in both civil service jobs and in political appointments. I fully understand how DEP works.

  7. disseddep
    March 17th, 2009 at 17:28 | #7

    I think we mostly agree! I had a subtle misunderstanding of your point.

  8. 14yrbumpkin
    March 17th, 2009 at 23:24 | #8

    They also are dismantling the Health & Safety program at DEP. Now that we have “Licensed Site Professionals” (and I use that term broadly), they see no need to give the staff the proper training that will allow them to visit hazardous sites. No respirator fit testing, no bi-annual physicals, no refresher courses in onsite health and safety. And the staff that previously provided consultation to the staff , especially for any Publicly Funded cases where the state does the investigation, will be replaced by outsourcing.

  9. nohesitation
    March 18th, 2009 at 09:24 | #9

    Hey bumpkin – send that information to environmental reporters at the Bergen Record – they might understand it!
    Are any real reporters reading comments here? Doubt it!

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