Cleanup experts in demand as deadline nears

DEP expects heavy hiring as developers seek remediation consultants

Joshua Burd//January 16, 2012

Cleanup experts in demand as deadline nears

DEP expects heavy hiring as developers seek remediation consultants

Joshua Burd//January 16, 2012

The May 7 deadline to most of New Jersey’s more than 15,000 polluted sites under the supervision of private-sector consultants has left the Department of Environmental Protection expecting a surge in retention of these experts — and fending off continued criticism from industry insiders.

As the deadline bears down on site owners and responsible parties, some insiders are raising old concerns about the phase-in of the so-called Licensed Site Remediation Professional program, enacted as part of a 2009 reform to clear the DEP’s backlogged caseload. But they also praise the progress the agency has made to overhaul the state’s remediation process.

DEP officials and representatives of the industry say they expect a flood of hiring in the next four months, as responsible parties scramble to retain consultants in time to avoid costly penalties. The state has about 12,300 sites that will require an LSRP, but during the first two years of the program, consultants have been hired in only 4,600 of those cases.

Regardless, the DEP is confident the deadline will be met.

“There should be panic on the outside about who they can hire and how they’re going to move forward,” said David Sweeney, DEP assistant commissioner for site remediation. “But again, we’ve done a tremendous amount of outreach on this, so there should be no surprises to people.”

A responsible party that misses the LSRP deadline could face a $15,000 fine, which Sweeney said may recur if the violation persists. Under DEP rules, cases that began remediation after Nov. 3, 2009, have been required to hire an LSRP, while cases that started earlier have until the May deadline to opt into the program.

For some stakeholders, the home stretch has reignited concerns about whether there are enough LSRPs to tackle the state’s full backlog. About 515 consultants have been retained for the 4,600 sites that are being managed under the program so far.

“The ratio needs to be improved, for sure,” said Nicholas DeRose, senior principal at Langan Engineering, who stepped down this month as the president of the New Jersey Licensed Site Remediation Professionals Association. He acknowledged, however, that some LSRPs are with consulting firms that can handle larger case volumes.

And DEP officials said some LSRPs have been hired by corporations that are bringing multiple contaminated sites into the program, easing the case-per-consultant ratio. For instance, retail gas companies such as Shell and Getty have brought in hundreds of cases, Sweeney said.

Whether a few hundred consultants will be able to handle thousands of cases remains to be seen, DeRose said, but a greater concern is whether they will have the time they need to learn the cases and sort through “a whole host of regulatory obligations” before committing.

“I think the number of LSRPs could handle the workload — but if folks don’t give them enough time to vet out the case and prepare for opting in, then I think it’s going to be a problem,” DeRose said.

Another source of debate is the effect of an exam that will be used to permanently license consultants under the LSRP program, which Sweeney said could be unveiled as soon as May or June. During the phase-in, private consultants had been managing cases with temporary licenses as the DEP developed the exam with a contractor.

David Haymes, Sweeney’s executive assistant, said some qualified consultants have been waiting for a permanent licensing test, rather than having to be licensed twice. That means the pool of LSRPs could grow after the exam is released, he said. But Stephen Fauer, president of Middlesex-based Environment Strategies & Applications Inc., said the exam will lead to “some attrition,” with some temporary license holders “simply ill-equipped to be full-time LSRPs — and this exam, in my opinion, is going to be designed to pull the wheat from the chaff.”

Still, once fully functional, Fauer and DEP officials said remediation projects will be done in at least half the time that it took under the old system. And for all of the concerns about the LSRP deadline, other aspects of the program are drawing praise from some of the same consultants and real estate developers.

DeRose said the LSRP community has benefited from technical guidance policy documents that have been issued by the agency. Fauer, meanwhile, said the agency’s in-house remediation experts have been responsive and were readily available to help with a recent case in which an LSRP needed additional input.

“This went down in virtual real time,” said Fauer, whose firm has 12 active LSRP cases. “In the old days, you called the case manager, and they might not call you back for six weeks.”

And some real estate developers are seeing the new system pay off. Michael Allen Seeve, president of Mountain Development Corp., said the firm recently purchased a Clifton warehouse site with plans to build a data center. The site required remediation for minor soil contaminants, he said, but the cleanup and subsequent transaction moved much more quickly than it would have in the past because of the LSRP’s oversight.

“None of that would have happened if you didn’t have a program like LSRP that sort of expedites these low-hanging fruit sites,” Seeve said. “It’s a good example of a system working the way it’s supposed to work.”

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