The doors and windows to the nondescript salmon-colored building in Franklin Township are boarded up — just another abandoned property in a state that, since the recession, has been increasingly full of them. Apart from its imposing but temporary fence, nobody would guess this cinder block building no bigger than a ranch home stirred one of New Jersey’s biggest environmental outrages of the past decade.

The state is knocking down the former Kiddie Kollege in Gloucester County, a day care center that opened in a contaminated former thermometer company, exposing more than 100 children in southern New Jersey to toxic mercury vapors before the disastrous conversion was discovered in 2006.

But in a state with more than 20,000 polluted sites — the equivalent of nearly three sites for every square mile — similar mistakes seem inevitable. Some of those sites have been neglected for decades.

In response, the state in the past two years has revamped the way it addresses pollution.

Instead of 200 case managers overseeing each cleanup individually, the state Department of Environmental Protection is outsourcing the jobs to consultants who, in most cases, work for the property owners. The stated goal of the program is to speed up the rate at which toxic properties are fixed while maintaining strict standards for their cleanup.

And the list is staggering: The estimated 20,000 known sites with hundreds more added each year range from leaky underground storage tanks in people’s backyards to complicated industrial sites that require greater scrutiny.

A broken DEP

“Two years ago, Lisa Jackson said, ‘We have a problem. The DEP is broken,’” recalled state Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, of the former DEP commissioner who now heads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“We can’t adequately process contaminated sites. We need a better system,” Smith said.

The Gloucester County case followed Jackson to her U.S. Senate confirmation hearing last year, when she told the panel: “Kiddie Kollege is just the tip of an iceberg.”

New Jersey turned to Massachusetts for a solution. The Bay State was in similar straits in 1993 when it took stock of more than 24,000 contaminated and long-neglected sites.

“You didn’t have to throw a rock very far before it hit a (chemical) drum stored in a field,” said Paul Locke, director of response and remediation for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. “Literally, you’d have a piece of land a couple acres covered in leaking drums.”

Massachusetts decided to license environmental consultants to oversee the cleanups.

Auditors reviewed the program five years later to see how the plan was working. The 1998 report found that 14 times as many contaminated sites were cleaned up in the first four years of the program as during the last four years of the old system — 3,146 sites compared with just 225.

In most cases, the program worked as hoped to clean up pollution. But the audit found problems. In 13 percent of cases audited, the licensed professionals had to retract or modify their opinions about the cleanup.

“While private response actions have been generally adequate in terms of basic cleanup decisions, the overall quality of work needs to be improved to foster better confidence in it by key stakeholders,” the audit concluded.

Deficiencies

The audit also indicated that about half of the cleanups had deficiencies or violations, although most of these were deemed inconsequential paperwork problems that did not need any follow-up.

“While this kind of problem does not affect the level of environmental protection … it points to a major problem with the level of confidence that various stakeholders have in the privatized program,” the audit found.

New Jersey also created a board, much like Massachusetts’, to grant or revoke licenses. Since 1996, Massachusetts sanctioned 43 professionals.

One surrendered his license in 2007 after the board determined he did not adequately assess the risk that solvents in the groundwater posed to neighbors. Another was prohibited from reapplying for a license after failing to alert the state that a family of four had not connected their home to public water, even though he knew the well for the home was contaminated with a cancer-causing gasoline additive. And yet another’s license was suspended after the professional claimed pollution from dry-cleaning businesses did not present an imminent hazard to two homes.

Locke said owners of contaminated properties still try to cut corners in the cleanup. But the audits are designed to catch incompetence or outright deception.

For example, Massachusetts fined Blackinton Common, a Brookline, Mass., housing developer, $316,487 last year for mismanaging the cleanup of a property, a former metal-plating factory. But in that case, the developer’s consultants were not even licensed under the state program.

Keep them honest

New Jersey, too, will audit cases to ensure a consultant’s work is thorough, honest and competent, said state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, who co-sponsored the changes.

“There were literally thousands of sites remediated in Massachusetts,” Van Drew said. “Quite frankly, the DEP does not have the staff to do it — nor do I want the state to hire more people. We don’t need to be expanding government. Once the system starts moving, there will be a tremendous number of sites fixed.”

So far, New Jersey has licensed 245 consultants, many of whom seem to have embraced the new system. Securing a license was no easy task.

“It took me 35 hours to fill out the application. That’s not because I’m a slow study,” said Jorge Berkowitz, a former DEP staffer who works for the consulting firm Langan Engineering and Environmental Services based in Bergen County.

Consultants must establish their education and expertise, documenting each case and the methods used to clean up sites.

Berkowitz said he is optimistic the new program will work. “In the past, the DEP felt compelled to review everything,” he said. “We’d submit a report, they would comment, and we would suggest fixes. We would have these valentines going back and forth, and nothing got cleaned up.”

Ken Goldstein is the chairman of the state’s new licensing board for site-remediation professionals. He said the program will speed the pace of cleanups, particularly for recalcitrant property owners.

“There are direct penalties for those who foot-drag. The DEP had the authority in the past, but has made it crystal clear under the new law that it will no longer be tolerated,” he said.

In his experience as a consultant with Ransom Environmental in Mercer County, the state — not his clients — created long delays.

Who benefits

“Small to medium-sized sites will benefit soonest. Those are the ones that will benefit from not having to go back and forth with the department to get approvals for every step,” he said.

“The potential upside of this program is tremendous … to resurrect contaminated sites and brownfields and clean up New Jersey in the long run,” said Philip I. Brilliant, founder of Toms River-based Brilliant-Lewis Environmental Services.

Brilliant said the threat of losing a license is deterrent enough to discourage consultants from fudging cleanups for penny-pinching companies.

“I’ve got kids in college. There is nothing that could entice me to do something wrong,” he said. “We’ve worked hard to become a profession. I’d like to think nobody will jeopardize their license.”

As available land shrinks, developers will have no choice but to turn to more contaminated sites, said Ted Zangari, a Newark lawyer who represents the Smart Growth Economic Development Coalition, a lobbying group for builders, Realtors and industry.

“Even when times were good and credit was flowing and demand for real estate was there and the economy was humming, developers were struggling to make the numbers work on redevelopment sites,” he said. “Cleanup costs alone cause a developer to put his pencil down.”

The state estimates that 20 percent of the 20,000 polluted sites have been lingering for 10 years or more. Zangari said the program will help reclaim once-toxic land.

He thinks the state should outsource other routine tasks such as issuing sewer permits.

“We should put this program on steroids and use it in as many agencies as possible for routine processes,” he said.

Skeptics in the wings

Not everyone is convinced the answer to cleaning New Jersey’s toxic sites is to cede more discretion to the polluters.

Environmentalists such as the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club petitioned the EPA in December to halt the state program. The Sierra Club said the state concedes too much oversight, particularly when it comes to declarations that a site is clean. Instead of the state making this promise to neighbors and would-be land buyers, the private consultants would.

Jackson testified to Congress in January that she would not recommend privatizing site cleanups at the federal level. New Jersey has more Superfund sites than any other state and the EPA’s pace of cleaning them up, too, has slowed in recent years.

Former DEP staffer Bill Wolfe has been tracking the privatization for his group, New Jersey Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Wolfe said the outsourcing plan masks the real conflict over polluted sites — the culprits don’t want to pay to clean them and the state has been lax in making them.

“When you weaken DEP powers, you open the door to constant negotiation that results in gridlock,” he said. “Delay, delay, delay and at the end there are no punishments and no greater cost to you.”

Until 2012, owners of toxic sites will have a choice whether to address the contamination the old way or through the licensed state professionals. By 2012, all but the very worst sites will go through private oversight.

And the program is supposed to have tighter deadlines for culprits to take action on cleanups.

“We need to be cautiously optimistic about this,” Princeton environmental attorney Stuart Lieberman said.

“What will happen if some consultants begin selling their results to the highest bidder and allow sites to remain unclean?” he asked. “We need to keep our eyes wide open and make sure there’s no hanky panky.”

Andrew Robins, an environmental-practice lawyer, said the program could help boost local tax dollars by developing formerly contaminated lots. Developers often shied away from contaminated properties because of the time it took to clean up before construction could begin.

“You can’t sit on a property forever. It can have a significant impact on the economy if it’s implemented positively,” he said.

But Robins said banks must become familiar with the cleanup rules and be willing to invest in once-contaminated projects. The new cleanup system will not work if the DEP is too rigid.

“The DEP could basically go back to the old system of reviewing every scrap of paper and second-guess every decision,” he said. “I think the DEP has a good handle on not falling into that trap.”

What’s at stake

Joe Fabrizio and his wife, Patricia, have learned more about toxic mercury than they ever imagined.

Their 8-year-old son, Michael, was among the many children who attended Kiddie Kollege before it closed in 2006.

The couple lives a few miles from the day care center, just across the Atlantic County border in Buena. They are convinced Michael’s yearlong exposure to mercury vapors when he was 4 stunted his mental development, forcing him into special classes at school and putting his future health at risk. And they are angry.

“Did it ever dawn on me? No,” Joe Fabrizio said. “The DEP would fine me $10,000 a day if I took a bulldozer into the wetlands. Why would I think that place wasn’t properly cleaned up before they made it a day care?”

Family friend Patricia Andaloro, a Buena Council member, said her favorite movie lately is “Erin Brockovich,” a true story about the legal battle over industrial water contamination that allegedly sickened California families.

The Fabrizios are not party to the class-action lawsuit other parents filed against Franklin Township and the state seeking long-term medical monitoring for the children. Their son already is receiving expert help from a New York specialist that the lawsuit is seeking.

“He has severe headaches. He knows he has difficulty in school. He wants to do better,” Fabrizio said.

“When your child can’t pass kindergarten — you’re not prepared for that,” said Patricia Fabrizio, who works in a dialysis clinic.

The couple said Kiddie Kollege was a colossal blunder at all levels of government — from Franklin Township, which granted a certificate of occupancy, to the state, which allowed the known contamination to linger for years.

They fear the state’s new way of dealing with pollution will be no better.

“It’s only going to be as good as the people who pay for it,” Joe Fabrizio said. “Until they correct the corruption problem in the state, nothing will change.”

In the meantime, the Fabrizios are trying to let their son have a normal childhood despite frequent doctor visits.

For Christmas, Michael got a Nerf gun, wrestling toys and the button-down pajamas he wanted.

Findings

  • New Jersey has been slow to clean up pollution, with a backlog of more than 20,000 contaminated sites.
    While privatizing the cleanup process can work, it has opened the door to malfeasance elsewhere.
  • The Sierra Club maintains the state has conceded too much oversight.
  • The state estimates that 20 percent of the 20,000 polluted sites have been lingering for 10 years or more.
  • New Jersey has licensed 245 consultants so far, who must document each case they oversee and the cleanup methods used.

Contact Michael Miller:

609-272-7247