Archive

Archive for July, 2009

DEP Involved in Corruption Scandal

July 27th, 2009 No comments
DEP Headquarters, Trenton, NJ

DEP Headquarters, Trenton, NJ

NEW JERSEY ENVIRONMENTAL AGENCY AT HEART OF BRIBERY SCANDAL — New Rules Needed to Ban “Pay-to-Play” and Protect Staff from Strong-Arm Tactics

 Washington, DC — Last week’s indictment of 44 people, including several New Jersey officials and two state legislators, underscores that “pay-to-play” is alive and well in the Garden State, especially within its Department of Environmental Protection , according Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Today PEER proposed new rules to end the closed door dealings within DEP that fuel corrupt practices and put its professional staff in an untenable position.

To facilitate development projects, state legislators pressure DEP to improperly approve permits, sign-off on incomplete clean-ups and shelve enforcement actions. Typically, legislators deliver their messages to the DEP Commissioner or the Assistant Commissioners, who in turn direct staff. As one of the indicted lawmakers, state Rep. Daniel Van Pelt, who sits on the committee overseeing DEP, bragged to the FBI confidential informant, he knows the “right guys” who “work” the “channels”.

“The back channels into DEP need to be shut down,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “As long as DEP does its business behind closed doors, corruption will continue to blossom.”

Today PEER is proposing transparency rules for DEP that are virtually identical to ones which the agency rejected when PEER first proposed them in 2007. These rules would provide:

  • Notice of Meetings. DEP convenes closed-door meetings with lobbyists, legislators and other insiders with no public attendance or publication of meeting agendas. The agency defends this secrecy as a matter of “executive privilege and the deliberative process privilege”;
  • Publication of Top Officials’ Calendars. The DEP Commissioner and top deputies routinely make decisions on enforcement and other pollution control policies in meetings with legislators and corporate executives, often from the same companies charged with violations. DEP shields appointment calendars to protect “the privacy interests” of attendees; and
  • Repeal Gag Orders Forbidding Staff from Talking to Media and Public. Under current DEP rules, agency scientists and other specialists are barred from speaking without prior approval from the agency Press Office. DEP says this is needed to enforce the chain-of-command.

“A big problem in New Jersey DEP is that the professional staff has little recourse when confronting management orders to less than faithfully execute the law,” Ruch added, noting that the state’s whistleblower law does not protect employee disclosures about threats to public health, manipulation of science, mismanagement or ethics violations. “Sunlight is the best hope for deterring sleazy deals.”

Political influence over DEP is now so deep that it is an accepted fact of life. For example, in a July 14, 2009 letter, DEP Acting Assistant Commissioner Scott Brubaker explained why he was setting aside water anti-pollution rules because legislators had introduce a bill to bully DEP to bend over for a favored project:

“The Department is also under pressure from the development community, which fears that the Department will unilaterally remove sewer service areas. Recently, legislation has been introduced that would extend the submission deadline…Together these added burdens would preclude the Department from adopting any new or updated wastewater management plan for the foreseeable future. Any Department effort to withdraw sewer service areas would encourage this legislation.”

“So long as DEP succumbs to political pressure, it invites that pressure,” Ruch concluded.

###

Examine the DEP role in latest bribery scandal

Read the PEER petition

View the DEP letter acknowledging political bullying

Look at DEP rebuff of transparency rules in 2007

See the full text of the federal criminal complaints

Camden Residents Left in the Dust

July 21st, 2009 No comments

Camden is NJ's poorest and most segregated city - ground zero for environmental injustice

Camden is NJ's poorest and most segregated city - ground zero for environmental injustice

 

NEW JERSEY ALTERS HEALTH STUDY UNDER INDUSTRY PRESSURE -  Industry Allowed Private Meetings to Lobby for Changes in Camden Study

Washington, DC – Facing a lawsuit, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has released documents outlining how an air polution study of Camden neighborhoods was re-written to allay industry objections. The released e-mails depict a clubby, closed door climate in which the state regulators seek to assuage industry concerns even while keeping the affected community in the dark, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

At issue is an October 6, 2008 study by DEP scientists in partnership with the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey entitled “Final Report: Contribution of Particle Emissions from a Cement Facility to Outdoor Dust in Surrounding Community”. It assesses how much dust is blowing from piles of granulated blast furnace slag at the St. Lawrence Cement Facility onto adjacent Camden neighborhoods. The report concluded that:

  • There was a significant impact on nearby homes: “The estimated contributions of cement dust to outdoor dust measured by deposition dust samplers ranged from 4.9% to 18.2% … and 5.6 to 21.8%”; and
  • Simple controls are available: “A cover over the piles would be a reasonable and well tested way to control these fugitive emissions.

After this final report was posted on the DEP website, industry consultants sent objections to Nancy Wittenberg, DEP Assistant Commissioner for Environmental Regulation and a former lobbyist for the New Jersey Builders Association. DEP removed the “final report” from its website and Wittenberg set up a closed-door June 2, 2009 meeting with industry consultants to review their concerns.

In response to an Open Public Records Act request filed by former DEP employee Bill Wolfe for the final report and agency communications with industry, the agency initially claimed that no documents could be released because they were “deliberative” in nature and covered by “attorney-client privilege”. After PEER informed DEP that it was preparing to file suit challenging the basis for non-disclosure as bogus, on July 17, 2009 DEP released the requested material “except for the revised study which is slated for publication later this week, according to an agency official.

“In New Jersey, even science is negotiable,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who helped prepare the lawsuit. “Notably left out of the loop are the people in Camden who have to breathe this stuff daily and get no say as to whether a tarp over the slag heaps would be a commonsense step.”

This also appears to be yet another recent instance where state political appointees inappropriately screen scientific work. In fact this June, DEP formalized its political review process for all technical reports.

“DEP has become a serial offender against government transparency and scientific integrity,” added Wolfe. “This is only one sample of DEP cooking the books and then violating OPRA to cover the smell.”

###

Read the withdrawn Camden dust study “final report”

Look at the e-mail exchanges between DEP officials and industry

View the court-house steps OPRA reversal by DEP

See the industry comments on the dust study

Examine how DEP political appointees vet scientific and technical reports