Out of Control Policy Blog

New Jersey to Privatize Toxic Waste Site Cleanup

Late last week, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine signed into law a bill privatizing the remediation of nearly 20,000 contaminated properties in the state. Per the Philadelphia Inquirer:

New Jersey will overhaul a troubled state program to clean up toxic-waste sites by allowing licensed private consultants hired by polluters to both determine how to clean up the properties and certify they are safe, under a controversial bill signed into law by Gov. Corzine yesterday.

The law revamps the overburdened Site Remediation Program of the Department of Environmental Protection. The program, which has been described as broken by state officials and lawmakers, has a backlog of about 20,000 contaminated sites, ranging from homeowners' leaky oil tanks to Superfund sites.

The governor also signed a related executive order yesterday that, among other steps, strengthens the role of the DEP in some cases. The order requires the DEP to increase its oversight at certain sensitive sites, including land that may be used for housing, schools, day-care facilities, playgrounds or athletic fields.

Corzine said the new law and the executive order "will cut though the bureaucracy to streamline the cleanup process and allow more than 19,000 contaminated sites to be evaluated more quickly."

The most interesting part of the article discussed the rationale for privatization:

Modeled after a program in Massachusetts, the law allows parties responsible for cleaning up polluted sites - in some cases the polluters themselves, in other cases property owners who have inherited the responsibility - to hire licensed consultants for the cleanup work. The administration proposed the program as a way to clean up sites faster and return them to tax rolls while limiting the expense to taxpayers.

Supporters say the law would establish mandatory time frames for cleanups for the first time, and hold environmental consultants to higher standards. The law provides enforcement actions to be taken against consultants who violate state law.

Proponents say the law will expedite cleanups at thousands of sites across the state, helping the economy and the environment. "The licensed site professional program is exactly the kind of forward-thinking problem-solving we need in New Jersey," said Philip Kirschner, president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. "It harnesses the resources of the private sector in a way that will provide a tremendous benefit to the public, both in cleaning up polluted properties and stimulating the economy."

Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D., Essex) said the law would help the state's site-remediation program operate more efficiently. "Licensed professionals will take over many of the more time-consuming functions that have boggled down the DEP," Coutinho said.

As is the case with many other privatization initiatives, this is about policymakers trying to gain control over the delivery of an inefficiently-run government service, not relinquish it, as privatization opponents often falsely claim (the Sierra Club, in this case). It's clear that New Jersey policymakers plan to hold the private sector to a much higher performance standard than the state has been able to achieve. And let's not forget accountability—unlike a government agency, companies that fail to perform will lose their contracts.

It never ceases to amaze me how much the game can change when you properly align private sector incentives towards generating the desired public sector outcomes. 

UPDATE: The Sierra Club is planning on challenging the new law, which leads me to posit a question citizens should be asking the antis in the environmental advocacy community: if the end result is better, cheaper, and faster remediation of thousands of toxic sites, then why would they care whether that work was performed by a private company?

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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