Oct. 23, 2006 – Residents in Gloucester City, New Jersey normally would have welcomed the state-funded construction of a new middle school. Instead, LaRae DiCamillo found herself fighting it.
The school was slated to be built on a Superfund site â€“ highly contaminated land scheduled for cleanup by the federal government â€“ and DiCamillo, the parent of a second grader, was outraged.
"Iâ€™ve begged [the government], â€˜Please donâ€™t do this to our kids,â€™" DiCamillo said.
But the toxic land purchased for Gloucester Cityâ€™s middle school may not be an anomaly.
Evidence suggests that the state government, as part of a major public-works project to build and renovate schools in low-income communities and communities of color, had purchased contaminated land for school construction in several districts.
Polluted property was purchased through an expedited environmental review process. State officials have also alleged that local municipalities also pushed the SCC to purchase contaminated land to save other property for more lucrative development and to cash in on the stateâ€™s willingness to foot the bill for toxic site clean-up.
The number of contaminated sites purchased is not known. News reports have put the number above 100, but spokespeople from the School Construction Corporation (SCC) â€“ the agency that purchased the land â€“ would neither confirm nor deny those reports in correspondence with The NewStandard.
A 2005 New Jersey inspector generalâ€™s report found that SCCâ€™s lax guidelines for site selection resulted in purchasing â€œpatently unsuitableâ€ land for schools.
Last month, a state task forcecould have offered DiCamillo and others assurance that the acquisition of toxic land would no longer continue, and that contaminated land already purchased would either not be used, or would be fully remediated.
But the Interagency Working Group on School Construction, in a report to the governor, proposed few reforms concerning the purchase of toxic land. Instead, it recommended that land acquisition be discussed in "another symposium" in six months.
The Interagency Working Group was formed by Governor Jon Corzine in February amidst allegations that the SCC was mismanaging public funds designated for building schools in low-income districts and acquiring contaminated land.
There are 14,000 known contaminated sites in New Jersey. Prior to the construction program, some schools were already built and operating on toxic land, including Lanning Square Elementary School in Camden and Robert Morris School in Union City.
The districts targeted for new schools, known as Abbott districts, were created as a result of several New Jersey court decisions that mandated that low-income, urban districts receive funding equal to suburban districts for education programs and the construction and renovation of schools.
In 2000, the New Jersey legislature designated $6 billion for school construction in the stateâ€™s 31 Abbott districts, prompting the SCC to begin an accelerated land acquisition process for new schools.
â€œItâ€™s the height of hypocrisy and cynicism to say here are education dollars that are supposed to make poor black kids on par with white wealthy kids, and then avert it to clean-up so towns can reserve clean lands for development.â€
In 2003, the SCC entered an agreement with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to "expedite" the process of cleaning up contaminated land in order to commence school construction.
Bill Wolfe, director of New Jerseyâ€™s chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), said this accelerated process led to inferior environmental review of sites. A TNS analysis of the agreement confirms that the SCC and the DEP allowed for rushed and limited environmental assessments of purchased land.
The Working Groupâ€™s report does not address whether the legislature should consider rescinding the agreement between the SCC and the DEP.
A 2005 New Jersey inspector generalâ€™s investigation found that SCCâ€™s lax guidelines for site selection resulted in purchasing "patently unsuitable" land for schools.
"Environmental review was perceived as a hoop and a barrier," Wolfe told TNS. "It was reckless."
The inspector generalâ€™s report also found the SCCâ€™s"internal weaknesses," made the agency vulnerable to "mismanagement, fiscal malfeasance, conflicts of interest and waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars."
New school construction was halted when the SCC discovered they would have a $300 to $400 million shortfall in funds to finish projects, and would not have enough money to start new ones.
Reserving Clean Land
The SCC was not the only party guilty of attempting to stick schools on toxic land. Theinspector generalâ€™s report found that municipalities suggested sites to the SCC that were environmentally contaminated.
â€œIf they cared about money and childrenâ€™s health, contaminated land would have been an option of last resort, not a common practice, and there would be mandatory siting criteria to discourage buying contaminated lands unless is was openly, factually demonstrated that no other option existed.â€
"The SCC has minimal guidelines for what constitutes an acceptable site for a school and generally accedes to sites submitted by local school authorities," the report said.
In 2003, Alfred McNeill, then chief executive officer of the SCC, accused municipalities of intentionally choosing polluted sites for new schools as a scheme to get the state to pay for the clean up.
"Towns very cynically used this pot of money as a way of preserving developable, non-contaminated land," Wolfe said.
Wolfe highlighted that the toxic land was targeted for low-income communities of color. "Itâ€™s the height of hypocrisy and cynicism to say here are education dollars that are supposed to make poor black kids on par with white wealthy kids, and then avert it to clean-up so towns can reserve clean lands for development," he said.
Despite municipalitiesâ€™ complicity in pushing toxic land for construction, the Interagency Working Groupâ€™s third report made recommendations that some districts "assume full responsibility for the design and construction of school facility projects." The group failed, however, to recommend that municipalities look beyond contaminated land.
The Working Group includes members of the SCC, the Department of Education and the Department of the Treasury. TNS attempted to contact four members of the Group; no one returned interview requests.
Governor Corzineâ€™s office also failed to return phone calls.
But Joan Ponessa, director of Research at the Education Law Center and member of the Working Groupâ€™s citizen advisory panel, defended the report. "They certainly have not been ignoring the land situation," she said. She pointed to the recommendations that the municipalities be more engaged in identifying suitable land for schools.
Limited Review and Remediation
PEER and others are also frustrated that the Working Group did not suggest that expedited and limited environmental review and remediation practices are inadequate.
The DEP and SCC use standards that do not require the supervisor overseeing the environmental site assessment to have any specific certification, licensing, education or experience. Additionally, only a "reasonable attempt" must be made to interview owners of the land, and reporting gaps in data on the propertyâ€™s condition is "generally discretionary," according to the Environmental Protection Agencyâ€™s analysis of the assessment standards.
Olga Pomar, an environmental justice lawyer in Camden, told TNS that she does not feel assured upon learning a site has been reviewed or remediated.
"People hear, â€˜DEP said this was okay,â€™ or â€˜DEP approved the remediation plan,â€™ or â€˜DEP says this site is now safe for review,â€™" she said. "But if you really know how the program works, you think, â€˜Well, would I want my kid on that site, even if it got this magic letter from DEP that said no further action [is necessary]?â€™"
Wolfe said there should be financial incentives to completing a thorough environmental review of land before purchasing it. "The more you know about the presence of contamination at a site before you make a decision to purchase it, the more you know about how much it would cost to clean up," he said.
In 2005, metals, chemicals and pesticides were detected in the ground fill of a school site in Trenton after construction began. In July, 2006, the SCC issued a notice that a full remediation of the site will be completed by the summer of 2007, and the school is now expected to open in 2009.
Also in 2005, the SCC proposed to build a high school on a contaminated Manhattan Project site in Union City that was used to make parts for nuclear weapons.Frank Acinapura, director of facilities for the Union City Board of Education, told TNS that plans for the school were eventually abandoned because clean-up costs would have been "exorbitantly high."
"If they cared about money and childrenâ€™s health," Wolfe said, "contaminated land would have been an option of last resort, not a common practice, and there would be mandatory siting criteria to discourage buying contaminated lands unless is was openly, factually demonstrated that no other option existed."
The Working Group did, however, recommend the legislature extend an additional $2.5 billion in new funding to the SCC for construction in the Abbott districts.
"Thereâ€™s going to be a reluctance [for the legislature] to re-fund the SCC given the fiasco of the first round of funding," Pomar said. "But the fact is, we need more investment to go into these schools, and we canâ€™t expect inner-city urban communities to be able to pay for this themselves. There has to be enough money to rebuild and make sure these schools are safe."
Even if the SCC is granted more funds, Wolfe said contaminated land that the SCC purchased should be sold immediately. "Land that has already been occupied â€“ they need to go out immediately and reconsider whether or not they have any health problems," he said.