Green teams Putting environmental cleanup in the hands of private sector is paying dividends

Putting environmental cleanup in the hands of private sector is paying dividends

Joshua Burd//November 3, 2014

Green teams Putting environmental cleanup in the hands of private sector is paying dividends

Putting environmental cleanup in the hands of private sector is paying dividends

Joshua Burd//November 3, 2014

If you’re in Stephen Posten’s line of work, this is what you call a success story.

When the owner of a small manufacturing building in Ocean Township became interested in selling the property recently, environmental consultants went to work. They identified a potential area of contamination outside the facility — a “blow-down area” for water discharged by a compressor — and did sampling to investigate the site.

What they found was no contamination after all, concluding the work in just six months.

“That immediately allowed the property transaction to move ahead,” said Posten, a Franklin-based vice president with the engineering firm AMEC. “In the older days that would have been unheard of. You would have submitted your preliminary assessment report … but it wouldn’t be unusual for it to take six months to two years or more for you to hear back from the (Department of Environmental Protection).

By “older days,” he means before the state’s Licensed Site Remediation Professional program was created, putting environmental cleanups largely in the hands of private-sector experts. That was five years ago — and stakeholders say the program is now coming of age and providing the benefits that consultants and property owners have long searched for.

“Many sites had been languishing in the pre-LSRP days,” said Posten, who also serves as board president of the New Jersey Licensed Site Remediation Professionals Association. “And I think what this LSRP program has done is take many of those sites out of that gray zone and moved them ahead through site closure.”

While the Ocean Township site had no contamination, the program has allowed the DEP to turn over thousands of polluted sites to LSRPs. And the Site Remediation Reform Act, which created the program in 2009, also put the owners of polluted properties and other so-called responsible parties on the clock to hire LSRPs and move their cleanups forward.

Those private-sector consultants can now manage the remediation and, in most cases, don’t require DEP approval to move from one step of the process to the next.

The program is helping the agency clear its backlogged caseload, while streamlining environmental cleanups in a state where such work took notoriously long in the past.

“There have been a lot of closeouts of some of the simpler cases by the LSRPs,” said Mark Pedersen, the DEP’s assistant commissioner for site remediation. “But we’ve also seen some closeouts of some of the more complex cases that have been out there.”

Pedersen said the department currently has about 10,400 active sites subject to the program, with issues such as underground storage tanks and hazardous chemical spills. To date, there have been slightly more than 900 cases closed by LSRPs, with “closeouts” referring to a specific geographic area that may have multiple cases.

But the DEP projects to finish this year with at least 1,200 closeouts, and that’s a far cry from the program’s early days. In 2010, a mere 169 cases were closed through the LRSP program, Pedersen said.

Stakeholders say the LSRP program took a few years to get going but it has weeded out less qualified professionals and improved cleanup work across the board. Pedersen said New Jersey now has 579 permanent LRSPs, who passed a licensing exam and are subject to oversight by an LSRP board.

And the program’s ability to function comes from increased communication between the DEP and the state’s environmental consultants.

Posten said “one of the most important” advances are so-called technical guidance documents, which were developed through a stakeholder process laid out by the 2009 law. He noted that, in the past, the DEP would issue guidance documents “without much input from the regulated community.”

“At that point in time you didn’t really have a road map for a lot of pretty common technical issues that the regulated community deals with,” he said. “Today it’s a bit of a different story — those documents have now been in place for several years, and they provide a lot of additional guidance that goes beyond the regulatory components that are in the Site Remediation Reform Act and DEP’s various rules.

“So I think now, the path is a little clearer.”

That’s not to say all the kinks have been worked out. Sue Boyle, executive director of the LSRP association, said certain stakeholders such as lenders are still wrapping their heads around the idea that it’s not the DEP making the final call on whether site is contamination-free. An LSRP’s work is still subject to an audit by the department, but the consultants now have the power to make that declaration through a document known as a response action outcome.

LSRPs also find themselves having to educate out-of-state clients who have property in New Jersey, said Boyle, a senior environmental practice leader with GEI Consultants Inc. in Mount Laurel.

“I am still very surprised that New Jersey is sort of a world unto its own when it comes to remediation,” Boyle said, later adding: “There is still some education left to be done, not only in New Jersey, but outside of New Jersey.

E-mail to: [email protected]
On Twitter: @joshburdnj

Paper business

If there’s another way to measure the progress of the LSRP program, it’s through paperwork.

The Site Remediation Reform Act required consultants and responsible parties to develop timelines and submit documents to the DEP for important activities such as a preliminary assessment, a site investigation and evaluations of any environmental impacts.

In 2011, the DEP received 3,500 of these “key documents,” said Mark Pedersen, the DEP’s assistant commissioner for site remediation. This year, it’s on target for 9,000.

“(That) means more work is being done on more sites,” Pedersen said, “because if you remember the whole basis for the (reform act) was to speed up remediations and get the department out of that back-and-forth process, to allow things to proceed without the department’s preapproval while ensuring they’re still protecting human health and the environment.

“So this process is working. More work is getting done.”