As of this month New Jersey’s Site Remediation Reform Act becomes law. This means that responsibility for remediation of the state’s 20,000-plus contaminated sites now passes from the DEP onto the shoulders of licensed site remediation professionals.
That means that the formerly voluntary cleanup program is now at an end. Instead, for all new remediations, the authority to officially identify, clean up, and issue official signoff certificates lies with these board-licensed individuals.
Michael Sylvester, director of business operations for East Brunswick-based environmental engineering firm Whitman Co., explained how this aids and challenges businesses from real estate to environmental engineering on Wednesday, May 26, at the PSE&G Training Center in Edison. Visit www.cianj.org.
Sylvester’s presentation is before the Environmental Business Council of the VCommerce & Industry Association of New Jersey. Typically, the group covers about 50 items during its 90-minute, bi-monthly meetings. But Sylvester will get an extra five minutes for his presentation, and that in a CIANJ meeting is saying a lot.
“When I graduated from Upsala in 1988, the hot fields were either pharmaceuticals or environmental engineering,” says Sylvester. “All my friends who went into pharma are retired now. I sometimes wonder if I made the right choice.”
But if you count service over salary, Sylvester’s 22 years in the field have definitely made him a winner. As a child, his parents worked with technical manufacturers. And despite his graduating with a bachelor’s in business management Sylvester maintained an inclination toward the technical and scientific. As vice president of first TRC/Vectre Corporation and Excel Environmental Resources, Sylvester liked the scientific aspect of our work. “I felt that I was selling a resource and talent, rather than just a product.”
From 2001 through 2004 Sylvester worked for the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, serving as manager of the Brownfields Redevelopment Office. He administered the successful loan programs of the Hazardous Discharge Site Remediation Fund (HDSRF). At Whitman Co. he specializes in financing and real estate education.
As the designated agency for remediaton review and oversight, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has been getting swamped. Estimates of more than 18,000 open cases are being augmented by an additional thousand annually seeking the DEP’s inspection and eventual “No Further Action” signoff.
“The DEP just could not bail the water out of the boat fast enough,” says Sylvester. “Everybody recognized the need for greater efficiency in time and money.”
Brownfield gone green. For most of the last 15 years, New Jersey’s brownfields have generated a land rush rivaling that of Florida’s waterfront. Municipalities and developers eye these repairable open spaces, often in prime locales, as profitable placement for commercial, residential, and public facilities. Two years ago this construction spree was dampened by news of two on-site vapor leaks, followed swiftly by the real estate recession. But the recovery is well on its way, with brownfields far outpacing the rest of the Garden State’s construction.
It is this real estate-driven thirst that has powered and funded New Jersey’s cleanup programs into such an enviable success. One Pennsylvania environmentalist assessed that his state did not need an LSRP program, but also said, “We don’t have municipalities and developers lining up anxiously to fund the remediation, either.”
It is probably not too cynical to say that the desire to make one’s soils safe and healthy, coupled with the urge for strong profits, does more than the desire for safe and healthy soils alone.
Another factor in New Jersey’s aggressive cleansing is its own social and political will. The HDSRF, passed in 2001 under Governor McGreevey, has tipped the balance for many developers hesitant to shoulder site remediation expenses in construction.
The LSRP solution. As early as 2006 the DEP tried to lighten its burden by designating certain environmental consultants as “cleanup stars.” Trained and certified, these individuals could identify and oversee remediation of some low-priority sites. From this arose today’s LSRP.
Last May Governor Jon Corzine signed the Site Remediation Reform Act into law, which called for the transfer of new site cleanups over to LSRPs within one year. To achieve this, the state established an independent LSRP Board, made up of government and DEP officials and private stakeholders.
Two temporary licenses may be issued by the LSRP Board, one allowing full remediation work for a limited period and a second granting work on underground storage tanks only.
“The model has changed,” Sylvester says. “Environmental consultants no longer are there just to point out compliance standards. A trained field engineer can now investigate, identify, perform the cleanup, and sign off, issuing an RAO.”
The coveted RAO, or response action outcome certificate — takes the place of the DEP’s “No Further Action” notice, which established the land as clean and qualified for development.
Challenges and changes. The shifting of remediation oversight to individual professionals did not come without great hesitance, and the program still has many critics. Environmentalists and legislators alike worried about the putting such yea-or-nay authority in the hands of one individual when such enormous amounts of money were at stake. This was countered by making each Licensed Site Remediation Professional directly responsible to the DEP.
When an LSRP discovers contamination, he is legally bound to report it to the state DEP. This means that property sellers may want to check the license before hiring an environmental engineer to sanctify that their land is clean. Once a site goes on the DEP books, remediation moves ahead at the state’s timetable, not the owner’s.
“Yet all in all, this is a great boon to the New Jersey business climate,” insists Sylvester. Most agree. The real estate industry is praising the Reform Act’s passage and heralding the LSRP program as long overdue. Owners of brownfields and other potential problem sites are relieved that the six-month to one-year log jam of site applications will now be broken. Construction and land development companies are, naturally, equally pleased.
Environmentalists, though initially uneasy, are lauding the benefits now too. Previously, it was possible for polluters to go ahead and build, counting on slipping beneath the DEP radar, or count on a year’s grace inadvertently granted by the overwhelmed agency’s slow response time. “Now the polluters really have no place to hide,” says Sylvester.
New Jersey has been credited and blamed for the most stringent brownfield remediation laws in the nation. What has historically made the system work was that it closed the incentive gap with some of most enticing financial grant and loan programs found anywhere.
Now, as the remediation industry matures, the LSRP approach offers a way of removing one layer of oversight and accelerating cleanup, hopefully without risking the public’s health and safety. There remains the possibility that these professionals might descend into official rubber stamps, but that seems unlikely.
Ideally, it will mean more decontaminated acres, more income and tax revenues, and less blighted land. Something we can all use, and well worth five extra minutes to dwell on.