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All Quiet on the Privatization Front

Perhaps a little too quiet – an eerie silence before the storm?

I’ve been focused on and writing mostly about Christie Administration deregulation issues. But there is another facet of his right wing agenda that presents a threat to protection of the environment and public health: privatization.

Just where are expansive privatization expectations coming from? Two places.

1) Governor Christie’s appointment of DEP Commissioner Bob Martin, who made his career privatizing public water systems; and

2)  On March 11, Governor Christie issued Executive Order #17, which created a 5 member Privatization Task Force headed by former Republican Congressman Dick Zimmer . The Task Force held hearings and was required to issue a public Report to the Governor and Legislature by May 31.  That Report has not been issued, but the Governor assumed $50 million in privatization savings in his budget, so there are shoes to drop.

But a litttle historical background is in order before we get to Christie policy and plans.

Last year, the Legislature enacted the Corzine Administration’s privatization plan for toxic site cleanups, known as the “Licensed Site Professionals” program (LSP).  The LSP plan was crafted by then DEP Commissioner (now USEPA Administrator) Lisa Jackson.

Private LSP’s, paid by their corporate polluter clients, now make toxic site cleanup decisions, with little or no DEP oversight and virtually no public knowledge or involvement in cleanup decisions.

The Gulf BP oil blowout illustrates how: 1) corporate profit motives; 2) private control over risky decisions that impact the public; and 3) lax government oversight and no public involvement, lead to disaster. BP simply made reckless decisions to cut costs. Those profit driven BP decisions are what caused the well blowout.

The LSP program represents hundreds of similar small scale disasters at toxic waste sites. The LSP program provides incentives for corporate polluters to cut corners to reduce cleanup costs. In representing their corporate clients and seeking the cheapest cleanups – with no government oversight or public accountability – the LSP’s shift toxic risks to NJ communities and the environment.

The LSP program is a horrible model that was so controversial that, during her US Senate Confirmation hearing, Jackson was forced to back away from it and pledge that she would NOT bring any similar LSP/privatization policy to US EPA.

Here’s the excerpt from the hearing: ( Watch CSPAN video of Jackson testimony here):

Question by Committee Chair Senator Barbara Boxer:

Q: Please provide “your views on polluters self certifying that property is clean” (@ time 3:26:45)

A: Lisa Jackson:

I don’t believe that process [i.e. private certification, as in LSP] has merit at the federal level” (@ time 3:42:43)

Chairman Boxer confirms that Jackson has rejected privatization at EPA and removes any ambiguity at time 3:43:03 by saying:

Q: Boxer: “you don’t anticipate and you do not expect to allow private consultants to certify sites as clean”?

A: Lisa Jackson: “No”

Some now are advocating expanding the LSP privatization model to DEP land use programs (wetlands, flood hazard, and coastal zone permits). Those very programs are now undergoing rollback reviews as a result of the Red Tape Review Report, so there is a serious risk that Christie deregulation and privatization policies could merge and radically dismantle these critical natural resource protection programs.

And proponents of expanding the LSP model are not just right wing ideologues, but also include Bergen County Democratic Senator Bob Gordon, and many other places in the Democratic party.

Just this week, at a conference of the National Association of Industrial Office Parks (NAIOP), a politically powerful developers lobby, DEP Commissioner Martin reinforced scapegoat myths about DEP’s impact on the economic recession, and continued to stoke extremely dangerous business community expectations. Here’s a flavor of the discussion Martin has with his business cronies:

Terming the new attitude at DEP a “culture change,” Martin explained that while guarding the environment, his agency also plays a key role in economic development. The thrust of the change at DEP includes the message delivered clearly to staffers that, “the applications on your desk right now are jobs, and they can’t be allowed to just sit there,” he said. “We are pushing every day to focus on growing business in the state while simultaneously protecting the environment. And in Chris Christie, we have a governor who ‘gets it’.”

The commissioner explained that his office has been looking at all possible aspects to develop a “transformation agenda, because nobody is happy with DEP’ ”not the business community, the mayors, or the environmentalists.” Among the early items on that agenda is to institute an inclusive stakeholder process “and get back to common sense.”

Covering a broad range of issues, Martin noted that recent measures have included the addition of a new assistant commissioner for economic growth, institution of one-stop permitting, resurrection of the Office of Dispute Resolution, and new emphasis on customer service. He cited clean water, green energy (including wind) as other key issues, and called the Licensed Site Remediation Professionals (LSRP) program “an absolute priority. That program cannot and will not fail.

Heading an expert panel on site remediation, moderator Don Richardson of Environmental Waste Management Associates noted the importance of the ongoing decision-making process for the LSRP program’s final rules. Stephen Santola of Woodmont Properties concurred that LSRP, “cannot be allowed to fail. This has really been a bipartisan program with buy-in from industry and DEP.” He questioned whether the lending community understands the program, and urged that the LSRP concept be expanded into land use.

Attorney Andrew Robins of Giordano Halleran & Ciesla conceded that there have been some misconceptions and a lack of knowledge about LSRP, and perhaps some basis for caution. “I am finding that I have to be a ‘drum major’ for the program,” he said. Robins also applauded improved relations with DEP under the new administration.

There has been a sea change for environmental issues, industry, and the entire state,” said Lawra Dodge of Excel Environmental Resources. “It has been a long time coming. The regulatory climate for land use has been broken for a long time.”

As part of a panel of Land Use experts, Diana Fainberg of Diana E. Fainberg Inc., lauded a recent administrative order [by Martin]preventing DEP from withdrawing sewer service for reasons of deadlines and other strictures—reversing a bill vetoed by former Gov. Jon Corzine

While DEP Commissioner Martin testified to the legislature during DEP budget hearings that he had no privatization plans “at this time”, he also has said the Governor is the boss – and his testimony preceded EO 17 and the Privatization Task Force Report.

With the pretext of the Governor’s declared “fiscal emergency”,  rabid ideological support and the experience of DEP Commissioner Martin, virtually anything is possible (despite the fact that DEP’s budget is about 80% from federal funds, permit feees, and enforcement fines, so privatization would provide minimal reductions of General Fund appropriations, could jeopardize loss of federal funds, and increase taxpayer burdens).

Thus far, the DEP related privatization issues that have been broached publicly are expanded LSP program for land use permit programs, and privatization of the parks.

On May 5, the Star Ledger wrote a story that opened with a revealing question:  “A Starbucks in Stokes State Forest?”

The state Department of Environmental Protection and Gov. Chris Christie’s administration are in discussions about having private vendors, rather than state personnel, manage state forests and parks.

“We are barely getting by this year with enough funding to run the parks, so we are looking for ways to ensure that our parks stay open and that all residents of New Jersey have an opportunity to be able to use the parks and recreation sites,” said DEP Commissioner Bob Martin today.

Most recently, in a June 6 Atlantic City Press article, Amy Cradic, DEP Assistant Commissioner for parks, confirmed that privatization was being planned:

Cradic also said the DEP is trying to offer more services through privatization. New Jersey residents will find, for example, more kayaking and bicycling concessions than in past years, and the DEP is seeking more proposals for private concessions, she said.

The debate on privatization seems to have gone underground, and I am not aware of any groups publicly working in opposition to expanded privatization schemes at DEP.

Given the context, that is not a healthy situation.

You know the drill.

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