From NJ Chapter of the Sierra Club: ‘Politics Over Cleanup: AshBritt and Christie ‘

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy New Jersey has to handle thousands of tons of trash, just as the Gulf States did following Katrina. A report by the US General Accountability Office (GAO) in 2008 found that the disposal of Katrina wastes by the states in the south resulted in the creation of contaminated sites along the Gulf Coast and two new Superfund sites in New Orleans. Those governments hired AshBritt in a no build contracts and were criticized in the GAO report for their failure to oversee the company’s activities. The same techniques and procedures used for waste disposal in the Gulf Coast are happening here in New Jersey. The same company, AshBritt, is handling the debris with no bid contracts while standards are being waived and emergency orders leave the company unregulated. On Friday the Senate and Assembly Oversight Committees will be holding a joint session on these concerns. We need to be crafting legislation to provide oversight of the contractor’s activities as was done in New York State.

“As Chairman of the Assembly committee responsible for legislative oversight, it is my duty to make sure that the State of New Jersey is spending taxpayer money efficiently and responsibly. Sadly, it appears as though the State did not act prudently when deciding to award storm cleanup contracts to AshBritt. I’m looking forward to a substantive dialogue tomorrow when my Committee and Senator Gordon’s Committee come together to ask the important questions about how and why these contracts were awarded,” said Assemblyman Ruben J. Ramos, Jr. (D-Hudson)

“The effects of Hurricane Sandy will haunt us for many years to come, however, we must take this opportunity to make certain our shore communities come back stronger than ever and that every aspect of reconstruction is done properly” said Assemblyman Peter Barnes (D-Middlesex).

In Louisiana and here we are reopening landfills and dumping new waste. In the Gulf dozens of temporary sites stored materials which created contaminated sites along the coast. Just as in the Gulf, in New Jersey there is no accountability or oversight of the waste disposal. We removed about 6 and a half million cubic years of debris and there is a lot more to go including the demolition of buildings.

“In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the waste removal and disposal practices used there created a toxic legacy. In New Jersey we are waiving the same standards, the same environmental rules, and hiring the same company. Since we are doing the same things here why do we expect the outcomes to be any different?” asked Jeff Tittel, Director, NJ Sierra Club. “In New Jersey there has been a failure to have any oversight or accountability. We are concerned that instead of cleaning up after the disaster we are going to be making it worse and leaving behind a toxic legacy just like in the Gulf.”

There are still 132 sites were debris and trash from Hurricane Sandy are being stored. At one point there were over 260 sites. Many of these sites were on fields, lawns, recreation facilities, and next to waterways, and we are concerned proper precautions were not taken in preparing and monitoring these sites.

Unlicensed companies, even one with organized crime connections, have been involved in the cleanup and debris removal and that in itself shows the failure to have proper oversight. We need transparency to ensure other dubious companies are not involved.

“When you give out a no bid contract to a politically connected company and you waive environmental requirements and standards and do not have proper oversight what happened in the gulf coast could happen here,” said Jeff Tittel.

The areas hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy are the areas we have said for a long time are most vulnerable for flooding and storm surges and they have done nothing to increase protections in those areas and are making it worse. In 2005 Rutgers prepared mapping of our coast and those are the same areas that flooded. The state DEP Division of Coastal Resources had not only mapped vulnerabilities to sea level rise and storm surges but had authorized studies to the Sea Grant Consortium on the Delaware Bay and were working on adaptation and mitigation planning for coastal communities. The state’s 309 report under the Coastal Zone Management Act raised significant warnings of the vulnerabilities of our coastal areas to storm surges. We had all this information prepared by the state warning us that this would happen and under Governor Christie those adaptation and mitigation plans were shelved and the Office of Climate Change eliminated.

“We had numerous studies outlining the risk of hurricanes and storm surges. Why didn’t the DEP have an emergency response plan in place to deal with waste and debris from such an event? We should have had a plan to address debris from flooding and storm surges. Instead the DEP was caught off guard and their response was to waive environmental protections and hire a company with a dubious track record,” said Jeff Tittel.

AshBritt was hired by New Jersey for waste removal despite an alarming track record. The company had violations at Gentilly Landfill in Louisana for failing to properly cover waste, meet effluent limitations, mishandling of asbestos waste, and improper supervision and security. The site was allowed to receive some potentially hazardous materials and reports by FEMA and a lawsuit by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups raised serious concerns on site. Sierra Club sued to try to prevent the toxic waste disposal but the case was dismissed because due to a lack of standing as an emergency order was in place. Instead we ended up with a toxic legacy, a new Superfund site at Gentilly.

“The State hired AshBritt without due diligence. If you look at their record in the Gulf Coast and Haiti why would the state even consider hiring them? They left a legacy of pay-to-play and toxic sites. Talking to the company’s lobbyist former Gov. Haley Barbour is not doing due diligence,” said Jeff Tittel.

In the Gulf they found pesticides, herbicides, household chemicals, mercury, and chromium treated wood. The Agricultural Street landfill in Louisiana has been nicknamed by the community “Dante’s Inferno” from all the toxic waste that has been coming out of it.

The company left two Superfund sites along the Gulf Coast in addition to problems at 12 other sites in Louisiana. At a former NASA site in Mississippi, AshBritt left debris in flood hazard areas and next to wetlands. In Haiti they were brought in to clear debris after the earthquake and there were reports and allegations of corruption and delay in clean up and Haiti is still a disaster.

Oklahoma Republican Senator Jim Inhofe said in response to the GAO report in 2008, “I believe that the federal government has used taxpayer dollars to create one and most likely two soon-to-be Superfund sites in the city of New Orleans. Further, the federal government will have to use tax payer dollars to clean up these Superfund sites it has created. According to FEMA, through November 2007 the federal government has provided $3.4 billion for debris removal in Hurricane Katrina-impacted areas. It is projected that another $800 million will be needed.” We do not want to see the same contamination and improper use of tax payer money here in New Jersey.

“We have to make sure that when we clean up after the storm the cleanup and removal of debris does not do added damage. As we start to rebuild our homes and communities we need to get rid of debris but we have to make sure we do it in a responsible way,” said Tittel. “We cannot allow the dumping of toxic debris and construction materials into landfills. Otherwise we will be turning our landfills into Superfund sites.”

We are seeing the same standards being waived here as was done in the Gulf. By waiving these environmental protections, Gov. Christie is giving companies like AshBritt broad powers without oversight or transparency. This goes against the recommendations of the General Accounting Office.

All the Governor’s office had to do was look at all the bad press AshBritt generated after Katrina to document their poor record. AshBritt has been a large contributor to Republicans including the Bush/Cheney campaign, Jeb Bush, and the Texas Freedom Fund. They have hired politically connected lobbyists such as Haley Barbour. Then you look at New Jersey and see they have done the same here.

“They are much better at politics than they are at cleaning up contaminated sites. They seem to leave a legacy of pay-to-play and toxic sites wherever they have been. Yet even with that record they keep getting hired and they were hired here,” said Tittel. “There is no logical reason to use AshBritt given their track record in the Gulf Coast and Haiti and that New Jersey has so many good companies already in the waste disposal and recycling business.”

Hurricanes and sea level rise are impacted by greenhouse gases. If we put all the debris from Sandy in landfills instead of recycling it, we contribute even more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. This will lead to more climate change pollution and sea level rise, making the next storm even worse.

“The Hurricane must not be used as an excuse to waive environmental standards. We can streamline reviews to expedite clean ups but our environmental rules must remain in place,” said Jeff Tittel. “DEP needs to have strict enforcement to ensure there is no illegal dumping or waste haulers accepting toxic materials.”

The GAO report can be accessed here: http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-08-985R
The LSU presentation can be viewed here: http://doctorflood.rice.edu/SSPEED_2008/downloads/Day2/6_Pardue.pdf