Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Failing Grades

New Jersey's state government continues to fail its citizens in carrying out its basic responsibilities.

It does not carry out inspections of dams that pose a potential threat to life and property, meaning that the conditions of literally hundreds of dams spread across the state are unknown, despite a requirement that they be inspected on a regular basis.

The State DEP can't keep track of companies that process and store hazardous materials either.

The DEP, which oversees both the chemical and dam programs, acknowledged that staffing problems had hampered its efforts. But the agency promised to crack down on scofflaws -- and said they were improving on dam inspections.

But one environmental activist said the audit showed that public safety was suffering from years of staff and budget cuts at the DEP.

"What's happened is there's been a lack of investment in DEP over the last dozen years," said Jeff Tittel, director of the state Sierra Club. "We've allowed the DEP to atrophy."

The audit, requested by state legislative leaders, found inspection rates had actually worsened in the three years since the program was last reviewed.

State law requires safety reviews annually or every other year at the 567 dams classified as "high" or "significant" hazards -- those where a breach could cost lives or cause major property damage. But as of Jan. 4, there was no record of inspections at 60 percent of those structures, the audit found.

Among all 1,700 dams in New Jersey, 70 percent were out of compliance.

"It's a major concern," said Albert Evangelista, who directs Passaic County's Fire Academy and oversees emergency management in Pompton Lakes. "These dams will be fine probably until the envelope is pushed [in a storm] and then you're going to see dam failure.

"It could be catastrophic or it could be minimal, but nobody wants to live below that dam that they're rolling the dice on."
These failures are inexecusable and shows that the state's priorities have been askew for years. One has to wonder what was more important than basic safety and security checks? I have to believe that it simply isn't sexy to conduct routine maintenance and safety checks on dams and other flood control structures, or to enforce listing requirements for companies that deal with chemicals.

It is this kind of oversight that can result in dire consequences.


 


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