Despite law, N.J. town says there is still delay in cleaning up contaminated sites

The final stage of New Jersey’s Site Remediation Reform Act (SRRA) took effect on May 7. Though the legislation is meant to speed the process of cleaning up the state’s 15,000 contaminated sites, a shortage of licensed remediation professionals has made it difficult to see any gains.

Under the previous system, parties responsible for cleaning up environmental hazards would have to notify the state of their intentions, find a contractor to do the work, and submit the plan to the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for approval. Often the plan would require modifications that would need further DEP approval before work could begin. For many contaminated sites, the process could take years.

The system was “drowning under its own weight,” DEP spokesman Lawrence Hanjna said.

To alleviate the burden on the DEP and consequently reduce the amount of time needed to return the site to productive use, the SRRA cuts out the state as middleman. Modeled after a similar program in Massachusetts, the legislation provides for the creation of Licensed State Remediation Professionals (LSRPs) — contractors with specific qualifications who are entrusted to complete the appropriate cleanup work within a mandatory time frame and then file documentation with the DEP.

Parties responsible for contaminated sites were required to have a contract with an LSRP by May 7 or face fines and DEP oversight of the project. Some say LSRPs, however, have proven hard to come by.

For the small, cash-strapped borough of Audubon, it’s a frustrating problem.

Obstacles to cleanup

Audubon Commissioner Kurt Bicking oversees the Department of Public Works, which has a severely inadequate facility on Nicholson Road. There, vehicles and equipment are exposed to the elements year round, and storage is almost non-existent.

“We need a way to put the trucks under cover, store more salt, and be able to maintain all our vehicles inside a safe garage structure,” Bicking said, but lack of funds for capital improvements is a major obstacle.

The borough owns two other facilities that could be upgraded to serve these purposes, he said, and “the sale of the Nicholson Road property would fund the much needed improvements and also bring in added tax revenue to the borough.”

However, the property is one of the DEP’s 15,000 designated contaminated sites. The borough is confident that the minor oil spill preventing its sale is confined to the asphalt, but an expensive estimate for a second round of testing by one LSRP left them looking for a second opinion. “We have been looking to get a price from another LSRP,” Bicking said, “but have been not having much luck.”

“Currently we are at a standstill,” Bicking said. “We have a property we don’t need but can’t sell. We have improvements that we need to do that will save taxpayers’ dollars, but we can’t afford them if we can’t sell the Nicholson Road garage.”

In need of guidelines

Bob Hunter, an engineer for consulting firm Bach Associates, which serves the Audubon borough, explained that because the law is so new, there are “very few people who are experts” on the specifics of the law, which makes it difficult to pin the problem on one issue.

Bach Associates’ environmental scientist, Wright Señeres agrees that the intention of the SRRA was to increase the speed of remediation, but difficulty locating available LSRPs has “slowed [the process] down to normal pace.”

One major problem they both see, however, is a shift in liability. Because the plan review process is removed under the new system, “the majority of liability is now on the professional,” said Hunter, instead of the state. Errors reflect on the LSRP, but guidelines have not yet been established to determine where liability begins and ends. He believes this may have scared away some qualified remediation professionals.

Señeres said, “Some companies that used to dabble in remediation are likely getting out because of the added liability,” while others are making it their primary focus.

The issue of timing

Timing has also been an issue. LSRPs were swamped with requests early in the year, said Hunter, and there was way too much work for the 500-600 temporary LSRPs to deal with. Many requests were met with a reply that they couldn’t guarantee services by the DEP’s May 7 deadline.

They’re out there, Hunter said. “They do exist. There just don’t seem to be enough to handle current concerns.”

DEP statistics seem to back up the anecdotes. Of the 15,000 contaminated sites, 6,000 are underground heating oil tank cases that are exempt from the LSRP requirement as part of the law, said Hanjna. But of the remaining 9,000, only 5,000 responsible parties had fulfilled their contracted LSRP requirement as of May 7. Hanjna said they are expecting more filings to come in over the next few weeks.

Because the program has been phased in over a three-year time period, Hanjna said there are “no excuses.” While he said he has not heard of any problems finding LSRPs, he said anyone having trouble should reach out to the DEP for help.

Hunter says he is hopeful LSRPs are starting to catch up. Bicking already has people interested in the property, so he also hopes Audubon can find an LSRP to “jump in” and work with the borough soon.

In the original version of this story, it was reported the Site Remediation Professional Licensing Board was not yet created. A spokesperson for the Department of Environmnetal Protection says the board is in place.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.