Home > Politics > Strange Interlude at NJ’s Privatized Toxic Site Cleanup Program

Strange Interlude at NJ’s Privatized Toxic Site Cleanup Program

EPA Superfund cleanup worker - if you believe that NJ private contractors, with no government oversight, will design and implement adequate (expensive) worker and community health and safety plans, then I have some toxic assets in Florida for you
EPA Superfund cleanup worker – if you believe that NJ private contractors, whose clients are corporate polluters, acting with no government oversight, will design and implement protective (expensive) worker and community health and safety plans, then I have some toxic assets in Florida for you.

interlude (noun): A short farcical entertainment performed between the acts of a medieval mystery or morality play.

Thanks to a last minute heads up by Bob Speigel of Edison Wetlands Association (EWA), last night I sat in on a “public” meeting of the NJ Site Remediation Professionals Licensing Board (SRPLB – or “Board”).

I put the word ”public” in quotes, because this was one of the strangest meetings I’ve ever attended - the headline of this post evokes one of my favorite playwrites Eugene O’Neil

“Our lives are strange dark interludes in the electrical display of God the Father!”

But, perhaps a more apt allusion is to the opaque, lunatic, and absurd logic of the bizarro bureacratic world of Kafka:

So if you find nothing in the corridors open the doors, if you find nothing behind these doors there are more floors, and if you find nothing up there, don’t worry, just leap up another flight of stairs. As long as you don’t stop climbing, the stairs won’t end, under your climbing feet they will go on growing upwards.
–“Advocates”

I was allowed to say a few words at the conclusion of the 2 hour meeting, as were folks from EWA and the NJ Chapter of the Sierra Club.

We all share a deep concern that the SRPLB is is implementing a fatally flawed law and is more interested in protecting the reputations and profits of private consultants than in protecting public health and the environment.

That surmise was only enhanced by what I heard last night during the Board’s “deliberations”.

Magritte "The Menaced Assasin" (1927)

Magritte "The Menaced Assassin" (1927)

So here’s a thumbnail sketch of why that’s the case and what the implications are (see Margritte above for the surreal dynamics at play) .

After Bob Speigel gave me the heads up, I searched for documents to review in preparation for the meeting so I could meaningfully participate.

But not only could I not locate any documents, over 1 year after the Board was created, I could not locate a Board website, the agenda for the meeting, or the time and location.

When I arrived and requested copies of the documents that were to be discussed during the meeting, I was given an agenda and told that no documents are available for public release.

So much for meaningful public comment – “So if you find nothing in the corridors open the doors ….”

The Board was not discussing trivial matters – agenda items included:

  • the complaint and disciplinary process to hold contractors accountable to professional standards, ethics laws, and compliance with cleanup requirements (sanctions include license revocation);
  • the “audit” requirements to assure that technical Reports and cleanup documents are true; that private contractor certifications are honest, and that cleanups are done safely and in compliance with laws and regulations (enforcement includes jail time); and
  • public involvement in Board deliberations

Apparently not satisfied with the fact that the toxic site cleanup program has been privatized  and DEP oversight effectively eliminated, the private consultants and engineering firms have also gained control of writing the DEP regulations with which they will have to comply.

One example of how captured DEP is by private interests: DEP recently proposed to eliminate mandatory cleanup timeframes to provide “a safety cushion” for consultants.

Going beyond the absurdity of having the consultants for regulated polluters writing the cleanup regulations that they will have to comply with (the front end), those same private interests also dominate the Board and now they are writing the requirements for their own oversight, enforcement, and auditing (the back end).

The Board’s conception of implementing the “audit” mandated by law was to develop a questionairre to those audited. The Chair of the Audit Committee designing the audit requirements is an LSP consultant who is subject to audit. The draft questionairre and audit process were  not made available for public comment.

Board members explicitly said that the objective of the audit process and questionairre is “not to look at the technical basis and facts supporting the documents” and that they will only conduct a paper review (could you imagine that kind of “audit” from the IRS?). One Board member was highly skeptical of that approach and questioned how the   Board could determine if the documents and certifications submitted by the audited consultants were accurate and truthful. 

This “pay to play” on steroids system functions as if  Wackenhut Private Security Guards replaced the police; corporate CEO’s replaced prosecutors and judges, and corporate managers replaced juries.

Last night, with no sense of irony or shame, the complaint and disciplinary process was presented by Jorge Berkowitz of Langan Engineering (nominated to the Board by Governor Christie). Talk about an inside job – that’s the same consulting firm that has 9 staff involved in writing the DEP cleanup requirements (for details, see this).

Jorge Berkowitz, Langan Engineering, presents a draft disciplianry process

Jorge Berkowitz, Langan Engineering, presents a draft disciplinary process. The Board as cop, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner (Jorge apparently was unaware of OAL appeal rights and indifferent in not hostile to transparency and public accountability.)

Here’s what the Star Ledger editorial board had to say on January 2 about Langan’s $25,000 political contribution to a front group supporting Governor Christie’s legislative agenda (and in even more irony and absurdity, Berkowitz is one of the better Board members!):

a sleazy practice that puts both parties within winking distance of a bribe, and that it engenders widespread mistrust.

Ordinarily, I would urge the public to become involved in the process to improve protections of the public interest.

Sadly, in this case, I am unable to do so in good conscience.

When public policy goes this far off the rails, and when those controlling the process are either oblivious to the consequences or cravenly using it to advance private special interests, then traditional public involvement becomes a sham, fraud, and perverse waste of time.

Unfortunately, it seems like we will have to wait for even worse disasters before any change to this system – and that may be a long time, because the impacts of the decisions that will be made by private cleanup contractors are not clearly visible.

But the consequences include things like poisoned water supplies, needless exposure to toxic chemicals and increased health risks, and more havoc on natural ecosystem functions.

We close with Kafka:

The Court wants nothing of you. It recieves you when you come and dismisses you when you go.

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