Coalition chastises N.J. over lax enforcement of 2008 toxic chemical law

TRENTON – Firefighters – among the first through the door at the scene of a chemical emergency – often don’t discover until years later the cancer that is killing them was contracted that day.

Plant workers, emergency room nurses, even neighbors who don’t realize what they live next door to, are among the millions of New Jerseyans a new report says are at risk because of lax enforcement of the 2008 Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act.

“We don’t see the governor working with us,” said Dominick Marino, president of the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey, as a coalition led by the N.J. Work Environment Council released a report Thursday that outlines dangers – and offers solutions – regarding a weakly enforced law.

In one sense, he was referring to a bill Gov. Chris Christie vetoed that would have lifted a burden of proof from first responders seeking workmen’s compensation related to exposure to hazardous chemicals.

In a larger sense, he and his coalition members were talking about what they claim is the overall slow pace of compliance with the Catastrophe Act by some companies whose owners are aware an undermanned Department of Environmental Protection cannot catch them.

“DEP needs more resources to enforce existing laws, and make sure our members go to work safely, and go home safely,’’ said John Shinn, director of United Steelworkers District 4.

According to Work Environment’s report, here is some of what is going undetected or undealt with by the state:

*A disaster can strike anywhere in New Jersey. Ninety facilities still using large amounts of hazardous chemicals that could harm millions of people in a worst-case scenario can be found in 19 of the state’s 21 counties.

*Facilities regulated by DEP’s Catastrophe program or the Environmental Protection Agency are concentrated along the Delaware River in Southern New Jersey or along the Interstate 78 corridor in Northern New Jersey, both densely populated regions.

*About half of the companies that under the law reviewed options for possible safer technologies took advantage of a loophole to block those reports from public view.

*Of the 42 publicly available reports studied by the Work Environment Council, many failed to consider safer alternatives already in use within their given industry.

According to Diana Crowder of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees, when companies say it is too expensive or unfeasible to implement safer technologies, they are not including the costs of workmen’s compensation, health care, clean-up and legal fees necessitated when a toxic spill occurs.

“We deserve a safe place to live and work,’’ she said at a press conference held to release the report.

Among its recommendations:

*Prevent companies from keeping those safer technology reviews secret.

*Require companies that claim safer technologies are not economically feasible to document such claims.

*Hire more staff for DEP to enforce the law.

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