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DEP Takes Polluters “At their Word” – EPA Audit Rips State Programs

August 31st, 2009 2 comments

 

DEP Headquarters - Trenton, NJ

DEP Headquarters - Trenton, NJ

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) broke the story that a recent EPA audit of NJ DEP environmental programs ripped DEP’s continuing poor performance and lack of effective oversight of polluters. We thank our friends in DEP for outing this bad news, that both EPA and DEP would have swept under the rug – you never  see this stuff in the avalanche of EPA and DEP press releases.

Perhaps the most shockingly unacceptable finding is that DEP takes polluters “at their word“, without conducting field inspections, sampling, or audits to verify their work:

Finding 8: None of the Site Remediation Program’s bureaus interviewed do any project assessment and/or process improvement beyond data validation, (i.e. no field audits, no split samples, no internal assessments, etc). The EPA assessment team was told that Responsible Party contractors and/or NJDEP contractors are “certified professionals and taken at their word.” (link to report here)

Here’s some of the press coverage:

EPA scolds N.J.’s DEP  - (click for complete article)

Friday, August 28, 2009

By MICHAEL SYMONS
Gannett State Bureau

An audit by the federal Environmental Protection Agency found the state Department of Environmental Protection still hasn’t made fixes promised since 2006 and detailed extensive shortfalls in New Jersey’s toxic-site cleanup [Note: and wetlands and other] program.

In a sense, the report means the EPA — headed by former DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson — is criticizing the management of the DEP during the years Jackson was in charge. …

Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst who is now director of the New Jersey chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said the DEP is failing to meet minimum federal quality and performance standards.

This audit is an indictment of DEP management for failing fundamental tests of competence,” Wolfe said. “Without basic procedures for assuring the accuracy and quality of performance data a public agency cannot even be sure that its shoes are tied.”

 

EPA Criticizes NJ’s Monitoring of Contaminated Sites (listen to mp3 here)

NEW YORK, NY August 28, 2009 —The US Environmental Protection Agency is citing problems with how New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection monitors thousands of contaminated sites. WNYC’s Bob Hennelly has more.

REPORTER: The EPA Region two audit of New Jersey’s DEP says the state lacks basic quality controls to ensure the accuracy of its testing and monitoring. As a result the EPA found “potentially significant vulnerabilities in how the DEP collected data to back up its own decision making“. Bill Wolfe, is a former career DEP analyst, with the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

WOLFE: The point of the audit is that the state has no basis to tell the public that they have the confidence that the decisions that they are making are really sound scientifically and actually protect the public health.

REPORTER: A DEP spokesperson says the agency is still reviewing the EPA findings. The federal review covers the time that current EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was in charge of the New Jersey’s DEP. Her office had no comment. For WNYC I’m Bob Hennelly.

 

Report: ‘Significant shortcomings’ in state environmental agency
Thursday, August 27, 2009 
BY JAMES M. O’NEILL
The Record
STAFF WRITER

A federal audit of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection identified what it called “significant shortcomings” in how the DEP operates, especially in the division that handles contaminated site cleanups.

The DEP’s site remediation program doesn’t provide proper oversight of contaminated site cleanups because program officers don’t follow up with field audits or internal assessments, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency report, released Thursday.

The EPA faulted the DEP officials for failing to verify what the private contractors of polluters told them about site cleanups. The DEP officials even told the EPA during interviews that the contractors were “certified professionals and taken at their word,” the report said. (link)  

 

NJ DEP Commissioner Mark Mauriello - on the hot seat

NJ DEP Commissioner Mark Mauriello - on the hot seat

 This latest EPA audit follows a scathing 2008 EPA Inspecor General’s Report that prompted EPA to take over a number of toxics site cleanups due to years of failure by DEP - see EPA IG Report here.

Will DEP Commissioner Mauriello announce reforms? Will EPA have the balls to strictly oversee DEP and enforce federal laws? Will the Governor or the legislature conduct oversight? Will Chris Daggett, that alleged champion of reform and former DEP Commissioner, speak out? Will the press do additional followup stories to inform the public about the impacts of this failed oversight on public health and the environrment? Will NJ environmental community engage? 

 

More shoes to drop in this story – we will keep you posted.

 

“WolfeNotes” blog launched – We aim to hold corporate polluters and government accountable

August 31st, 2009 1 comment

Below is the post that got my blog banned by the Star Ledger on June 10, 2009.

So I thought it would be a good first post to use to launch my new blog, “WolfeNotes.com” .

That banned post illustrates the reasons that I blog and some of what I hope to accomplish. I try to combine serious ideas, visual images, and analysis to call out the bullshit I see in government, politics, and media every day.

I will focus primarily on environmental issues, not only because I love the natural world, but because the same forces that are destroying the environment also are responsible for our current accelerating economic and political collapse.

Hopefully, I will remain too controversial for the Star Ledger. And perhaps someday we all will recall that I.F. Stone famously said, all governments lie. Yet our media institutions have lost touch with that fundamental truth and not only fail to hold government accountable, but often accept government spin at face value, which then becomes the dominant narrative (conventional wisdom, or propaganda) .

But, lets not blame government per se. Scratch the surface of almost any government lie and you find a cover for corporate power and economic interests.

As political scientist Sheldon Wolin wrote in “Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism” (excellent review here), our democratic institutions have been hijacked by corporate interests and our Republic transformed to a global empire.

And there is little indication that the Obama “change”  is anything more than rhetoric.

According to an interview with Wolin in Chris Hedges’s new book “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle” (Hedges interview here):

The basic systems are going to stay in place; they are too powerful to be challenged.” Wolin to me when I asked him about the Obama administration. “This is shown by the financial bailout. It does not bother with the structure at all. I don’t think Obama can take on the kid of military establishment we have developed. This is not to say that I do not admire him. …I think he is well meaning, but he inherits a system of constraints that make it very difficult to take on these major power configurations. I do not think he has the appetite for it in any ideological sense. The corporate structure is not going to be challenged. There has not been a word from him that would suggest an attempt to rethink the American imperium.”

So, this is the frame of reference I will try to apply to the more circumscribed world of NJ environmental issues and politics.

Let me know what you think – one of my aims is to spur dialogue.

Thrifty Individual Reducing Carbon FootPrint

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 1946
http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm

Vacationing close to home – camping in public parks

(warning – graphic images on the flip)

Read more…

New national mercury research confirms NJ’s experience – another nail in coal’s coffin?

August 30th, 2009 No comments
Pennsylvania coal power plant on the Delaware River

Pennsylvania coal power plant on the Delaware River

Think coal: Global warming. Mountaintop removal. Sludge impoundment blowouts. Poisoned waterways. Acid rain. Smog. Unsafe mines. Exploited workers. Devastated communities.

The most recent nail in coal’s coffin?

An important new study by the US Geological Survey was released this week. The study documents extensive mercury pollution due to coal power and provides a huge test of the Obama administration’s commitments to develop strict new mercury emissions controls at the nation’s dirty coal power plants. The key policy issues? The inside political history?

Will EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson propose the equivalent of NJ’s strict State emission standards on the nation’s coal power plants?

What was Christie Whitman’s role in the NJ mercury issue? How did it shape her response as EPA Administrator to accommodate energy and coal interests during the Bush years (recall the Orwellian “Clear Skies” that was slammed by NJ officials)?

Here’s the newes coverage:

WASHINGTON –

No fish can escape mercury pollution. That’s the take-home message from a federal study of mercury contamination released Wednesday that tested fish from nearly 300 streams across the country.

The toxic substance was found in every fish sampled, a finding that underscores how widespread mercury pollution has become.

The study by the U.S. Geological Survey is the most comprehensive look to date at mercury in the nation’s streams. From 1998 to 2005, scientists collected and tested more than a thousand fish, including bass, trout and catfish, from 291 streams nationwide.

“This science sends a clear message that our country must continue to confront pollution, restore our nation’s waterways, and protect the public from potential health dangers,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.

Mercury consumed by eating fish can damage the nervous system and cause learning disabilities in developing fetuses and young children. The main source of mercury to most of the streams tested, according to the researchers, is emissions from coal-fired power plants. The mercury released from smokestacks here and abroad rains down into waterways, where natural processes convert it into methylmercury — a form that allows the toxin to wind its way up the food chain into fish. (read full story here)

This USGS study also confirms scientific research and regulatory standards adopted in NJ over 15 years ago.

Few are aware of this history. It can provide important insights into the current national policy debate.

Fifteen years ago, former Bush EPA Adminsitrator Chritie Whitman had extensive direct involvement with mercury as NJ Governor. Whitman’s NJ role foreshadowed her actions as head of the Bush EPA, which delayed and then proposed a weak mercury emission rule that was overturned by the courts.

Current EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson served as NJ DEP Commissioner. Jackson was Assistant Commissioner for Land Use when her boss, Brad Campbell led NJ DEP to adopted a strict emission standard for coal plants in 2004. Jackson’s EPA is now considering that same issue and developing a national proposal to regulate mercury emissions at the nation’s dirty coal plants.

So, with the former and current head of EPA both coming from NJ, I’m sure we will hear the standard line about NJ’s environmental leadership.

But instead of the press corps merely parroting this talking point on NJ’s leadership, the press and the public should be doing some digging and asking tough questions.

So, let’s take a closer look at the NJ history in light of the current debate.

The mercury issue first arose in NJ in the late 1980′s in the fight against garbage incinerators. In 1990, Governor Florio Administration issued an Executive Order that imposed a moratorium on garbage incinerators and created a Mercury Task Force. In 1993, the Florio Task Force issued a 3 Volume Report that provided the public health and scientific bases for DEP to adopt what was then the strongest mercury air emissions standards for garbage incinerators in the world. While the initial focus was of the Task Force was on garbage incineration, the Report also announced plans to expand emission standards to coal fired power plants, another major mercury source. At the same time, DEP engaged the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences to study levels or mercury in freshwater fish across the state.

The Florio policy and plans to regulate coal plants were derailed in 1994 by the Whitman Administration and new DEP Commissioner Bob Shinn. Their actions set back NJ for over a decade. It took 10 more years before NJ got back on track and finally adopted standards on coal plants in 2004. Because of that Whitman/Shinn delay, we will be paying for that with our children’s neurological impairment as a result of mercury poisoning.

Shinn was a strong supporter of garbage incineration and personally reversed the Florio policy. Shinn was also close to the state’s recreational fishermen, who were hotly opposed to the fish studies. Whitman was “Open for Business” and politically sympathetic to PSEG and state power utilities that operated coal plans. A major new coal plant was proposed along the Delaware River (Crown Vista). Mercury was a fly in the Whitman/Shinn ointment.

In early 1994, at the start of Whitman/Shinn regime, a DEP study conducted by the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences was leaked to the media and reported widely. The leaked study was page one news. The study documented statewide unsafe levels of toxic mercury in NJ freshwater fish.

Widespread press coverage cast DEP and the Whitman administration in a negative light. In response, Governor Whitman sought to downplay the risks of this study. 

Environmentalists accused the state of ignoring its mercury problem, and the press blasted the Governor.

Whitman responded and compared the mercury in fish risks to the recent public reaction (“scare”) to media reports of the health risks of the pesticide alar on apples. The apple industry suffered huge economic losses as demand fell in response to the alar story. Whitman felt the public’s reaction was unwarranted, and unfair to the apple industry. Whitman sought to avoid a similar situation in NJ.

To do this, the Governor and DEP Commissioner came up with a plan to mislead the public by saying that the Philadelphia Academy study was preliminary and inconclusive. The Whitman scheme relied on a bogus and knowingly false claim that the form of mercury found in the fish was unknown and therefore required further research before taking any action. Whitman and Shinn did not make honest mistakes or minor misstatements.

Whitman’s public statements, extensively quoted in the press, were part of a strategy to falsely inject scientific uncertainty and minimize health risks in order to avoid taking regulatory against specific pollution sources of mercury (garbage incinerators and coal fired power plants). Whitman was denounced by environmentalists in the press for this. When this scientific research was leaked and a coverup strategy memo were disclosed to the public by the press, Whitman not only repeated the lies but also retaliated against a career DEP employee who called her on those lies.

In addition to Whitman being scolded fro her errors by academic scientists in the press, scientists in DEP called the Governor out on her lies – Here is the DEP memo:

STATE OF NEW JERSEY,
DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AND ENERGY,

March 28, 1994.

CONFIDENTIAL MEMORANDUM

TO: Commissioner Robert Shinn.
THROUGH: Robert Tucker, Ph.D., Director.
FROM: Leslie McGeorge, Assistant Director.
SUBJECT: Information on Mercury in Fish.

Over the past several weeks, it has been observed that information attributed by the press to the Governor’s Office on the issue of mercury in fish has contained some technical inaccuracies. We offer the information in this memorandum for your consideration in providing the Governor’s Office with further clarification of this issue.

As was stated by the Governor’s Office, there are three forms of mercury:
* Elemental Mercury (metallic mercury). This is the type of mercury used in thermometers.
* Inorganic Mercury (mercury salts). An example is mercuric chloride.
* Organic Mercury. Methylmercury is the most important organic mercury compound in terms of environmental exposure.

Contrary to the statements reported in the press, all three forms of mercury are toxic to humans. Elemental mercury is volatile, and it is toxic when breathed from the air; exposure to elemental mercury can cause effects on the central nervous system.

The toxicity of the other two types of mercury (inorganic and organic) can occur through ingestion, which is the exposure route relevant to mercury in fish. Inorganic mercury is toxic to the kidney. Methylmercury, the organic mercury of primary concern, is toxic to the central nervous system. The most sensitive toxic effect of Methylmercury in non-pregnant adults is paresthesia (abnormal sensations in the skin). Methylmercury is also toxic to the developing fetus, and causes defects in the development of the nervous system. This developmental toxicity is the most sensitive effect of exposure to methylmercury.

Of the different forms of mercury, all scientific data indicate that essentially all of the mercury in fish is methylmercury. The most recent and reliable investigation into the occurrence of methylmercury in fish conducted under ultraclean laboratory conditions (Bloom, 1992) showed that almost all of the mercury in the edible portion of fish and shellfish (muscle tissue) is in the form of methylmercury. This study included multiple samples (at least 3) of 15 species. For all species, the average percentage of methylmercury was at least 91 percent of total mercury, and for all freshwater fish species, methylmercury was 96 percent or more of total mercury. These results are generalizable to all marine and freshwater fish.

Information attributed to the Governor by the press indicated that there may be a marked difference in the ease of metabolism of different forms of mercury, and that the toxicity of mercury is-dependent on whether it is released naturally or by man-made processes. Actually, the time required for the body to rid itself of a dose of mercury is generally similar for all three forms of mercury. Additionally, the toxicity of a given form of mercury is not dependent on whether it originated from natural or man-made processes. Any type of mercury released may undergo changes from one form to the other in the environment. The mercury in fish may have come from either source, but the origin of the mercury in the tissue is not relevant to the potential for toxicity to humans.

In summary, there are three forms of mercury. For all intents and purposes the only form of mercury found in fish is methylmercury. Exposure to methylmercury through fish ingestion can pose a significant potential for adverse human health effects.

Mercury in fish may originate from human or natural processes, but this distinction is not relevant from a human health perspective.
The Division of Science and Research has additional information on all of the points mentioned above. We would be happy to discuss these issues further with you at your convenience if you so desire. (1)” [end]

Legal Corruption – Senator Sarlo Shills for Builders

August 29th, 2009 No comments
Senator Sarlo (D-Bargen) Chairs Regulatory Oversight Committee (5/1/08)

Senator Sarlo (D-Bargen) Chairs Regulatory Oversight Committee (5/1/08)

The latest corruption scandal in NJ has received widespread press coverage and calls for reform.

Importantly, for the first time, corruption has been linked to its impacts on the environment (see: Bergen Record: Builders call the shots; and DEP E-Mails follow lawmakers request; Star Ledger: N.J. environmental groups call for investigation of DEP in light of corruption arrests; Courier Post: Groups call for Probe of DEP  and Star Ledger editorial: Consider CleanGreenNJ’s call for a DEP government cleanup (the CleanGreen NJ reform platform backed by the Star Ledger can be found here).

Yet, while the FBI “Bid Rig” investigation that led to criminal indictments of 44 state and  local officials – including 2 state Assemblymen – was ongoing, virtually the same corrupt game was going on during this extraordinary hearing of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee on June 4, 2009

What went on during this Senate hearing is effectively as corrupt as the behavior of  Assemblyman Van Pelt (who bragged “DEP works for me” and that he “knew the “right guys,” at DEP and how to “work” the “channels.”) and Assemblyman Smith were criminally indicted for.

Follow the logic – 3 easy steps – and keep in mind that DEP “rules” are LAWS, so what we have here is a State Senator (and Mayor) pressuring public officials to allow violations of law:

Step #1 – DEP explains the large environmental stakes:

“We believe, and the current Rules reflect, that it would be poor public policy to extend sewer service at public expense to subsidize and encourage the development of resources the agency is charged to protect. Promoting the extension of sewers and to threaten endangered species habitats, unique and rare ecological communities, and wetlands just does not make sense to us.”

Step #2 – Senator Sarlo brazenly admits he privately intervened – on behalf of the economic interests of builders – to pressure DEP Commissioner to not enforce laws:

“We actually — this Committee met May 1 of 2008,  [I wrote about this hearing here "Builders Gone Wild"] and we had a series of hearings — on May 1, 2008 — with regard to these Rules [issues discussed here, "Builders Escalate Assault on Environment"]  The Rules were ultimately adopted in July of 2008 and went into effect April of  2009 — of this year. In February and March of this year, I had begun an open dialogue with the Department of Environmental Protection and their Commissioner, sharing some of the concerns of the Legislature with regard to counties following through and having their plans approved. And as we know, there are many counties, as we sit here today, whose plans are not approved. What is the impact on the building community with these plans not being approved?”

Step# 3 – DEP admits they caved into political pressure from Senator Sarlo and will not enforce laws:

 “Senator Sarlo, I know that many present here have expressed concern to you over the draft line, and I know that Acting Commissioner Mauriello has been in communication with you on this issue. Foremost, there was significant concern that the Department would withdraw all future sewer service area on April 7 for counties or on July 9 for municipalities if they did not submit their Wastewater Management Plans. The counties are crucial to the success of this project. We are bound to them in partnership. As you know, the Department has extended the counties’ submission deadlines, and will continue to work with them as necessary and appropriate to see this process through. We have no plans, at this time, to unilaterally withdraw a sewer service area from counties that do not have current Water Quality Management Plans.”(page 4-5)

 [Note: DEP put this all in writing, read the DEP concession letter – click here

Now, let’s take a look at the text of the hearing transcript for multiple examples of Sarlo pressuring DEP and cheerleading for builders during that hearing. Whose interest is Sarlo representing? The public? The environment? Your interests? Or the narrow economic interests of the builders, property owners, and investors that fund his dual office holding campaigns (as Mayor and Senator?)

  • SENATOR SARLO: Okay. And I just want to clarify that with Hudson being the only one approved right now — everything else pending, the other 16 pending, and the other four — the other three submitting their sewer authority maps, and Warren not participating at all — currently, today, if a plan is not adopted yet or approved by the Department, are we placing any moratorium on any projects that are currently pending before local boards — land use boards? (@ page 10)

 

  •  SENATOR SARLO: If there are any projects that currently have been approved, not being built because of the difficult economic times, and then they fall within these restricted areas, how are we going to deal with those projects?  (@ page 10)

 

  • SENATOR SARLO: Have we given the counties a definitive date? I know we’ve– And we appreciate the extension, and I think it’s the right thing to do from a public policy standpoint. But has a definitive date been provided? (@page 11)

 

  • SENATOR SARLO :… Let me clarify that. Make sure we get that clarified. I live in Woodridge, where I serve as Mayor. Somebody lives out of state, owns a piece of property in New Jersey, and their property has been clipped from the sewer service area. How is that property owner going to know that his property has been clipped from that sewer service area? He lives out of state and is not paying attention. He’s not going onthe Internet, he’s not paying attention to what’s happening in New Jersey, but he owns a valuable piece of property. (@ page 12)

 

  • SENATOR SARLO:  I mean, I have a concern that the perception here is, here is government coming in, taking away your rights as a property owner, and you have no say. You don’t have the ability to make a statement or make a say. If you’re sitting on a piece of property, perhaps it’s an investment property for down the road. And then you turn around to try and invest in it, you’ve made an investment, and now your property, in a way, has been devalued. So that is a concern of mine and I’m sure many others in the Legislature. (@page 13)

 

  • SENATOR SARLO: And just one final question: Are we concerned that– Is the Department concerned that some of these rules may provide local officials with kind of a back-door method to deny an unwanted project in their community? Could they use this to hang over — not-in-my-backyard type of syndrome on a project? Could they say, “Down the road they can amend it, and your property may fall within that area that’s going to no longer be a sewer service area. So we should deny your project now”? Is there any concern by the Department on that — that it could be abused by the local municipalities? (@page 13)

Mulshine Disembowels McKeon

August 28th, 2009 No comments
Assemblyman McKeon (D-Essex) Chairs the Environment Committee

Assemblyman McKeon (D-Essex) Chairs the Environment Committee

disembowel |ˌdisemˈbouəl|

verb ( -boweled , -boweling ; Brit. -bowelled, -bowelling) [ trans. ]
cut open and remove the internal organs of.

Conservative Star Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine gets it right – like a stopped clock tells the correct time twice a day.

Today, he wrote about a development in West Orange. This column managed to put together almost all the pieces of corruption in NJ’s perverse pay to play pro-development political and legal landscape.

Highly recommended – After you read it and get angry, those interested in reform, should visit the “CleanGreenNJ” reform platform

For Mulshine’s column, Click on:

Even Edison couldn’t invent a reason to stay in New Jersey