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Reason Foundation

States Struggling with Toxic Waste Should Follow NJ, MA Approach

Harris Kenny
December 6, 2011, 8:44pm

Jim Malewitz, staff writer at Stateline (a project of The Pew Center on the States), reports:

States across the country are trying to bear the burden left by what many people – from environmental health advocates to chemical manufacturers – have described as a gaping hole in federal law. The uneven nature of state regulation leaves virtually no one satisfied.

Advocates of change now hope the increased awareness in state legislatures will translate into a sense of urgency in Congress, as it considers the latest attempt to overhaul the 35-year-old and never-updated Toxic Chemicals Safety Act.

This burden can be separated into three separate issues: First, cleaning up sites already polluted with toxic waste; second, disciplining individuals, businesses, and government bodies responsible for pollution; and third, reforming existing regulation to prevent further pollution of government-owned property.

Fortunately state policymakers don’t have to wait for Congressional action to address the first issue of cleaning up sites already polluted with toxic waste. Over the last few years New Jersey and Massachusetts implemented innovative programs that essentially privatized cleanup of toxic waste sites.

As Reason Foundation reported in Annual Privatization Report 2009, in May 2009 New Jersey lawmakers enacted a bill with overwhelming bipartisan support that privatized the cleanup of nearly 20,000 contaminated properties in the state. The move overhauled the state’s Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) site remediation program, which failed to put a dent in cleaning up nearly 20,000 contaminated sites.

The law authorized polluters to hire licensed private consultants to clean up the contaminated properties and certify their safety. The law also set mandatory time frames for cleanups and subjects environmental consultants to high standards and strict oversight. In a related move, former Governor Jon Corzine signed an executive order requiring the DEP to increase its oversight at certain sensitive sites, including schools, daycare facilities, and playgrounds. These measures were modeled after similar programs enacted previously in Massachusetts.

As for disciplining individuals, businesses, and government bodies responsible for pollution and reforming existing regulation to prevent further pollution of government-owned property… State policymakers shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for the federal government. The collective government failure to protect the environment from toxic waste strengthens the argument that voluntary private conservation is the silver bullet to tragedy of the commons dilemmas like this.

For additional related work, visit Reason Foundation’s Environment Research and Commentary Archive.


Harris Kenny is Policy Analyst


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