Thursday, January 25, 2007

Democracy Works: Senator Crisco's Proposed Residential Soil Standards

We have always felt that the Newhall Community was fortunate to have gifted legislators, men who not only served us and our neighbors, but also the broader public interest.

Never has this been more clear than now. Indeed, our legislators have just initiated several new bills that, when passed into law, are going to mean very positive changes not only for Newhall, but for the State of Connecticut as a whole.

At the beginning of January, Senator Joe Crisco put forward a remarkable set of bills in the Connecticut General Assembly to revise the state's soil standards. He has proposed that Connecticut adopt the EPA standard for lead in soil (1200 mg/kg) and set the acceptable level for carcinogens in soil at the point where the lifetime risk of getting cancer from your soil is less that 1 in 20,000 (the general lifetime risk of cancer is about 1 in 2). Senator Crisco, Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney and State Represenative Peter Villano have also put forward legislation demanding that the CT DEP take the recommendations of our community into account and that funds be earmarked to address structural problems in several homes. Our legislators have also set a firm 90-day deadline for the finalization of a DEP clean-up plan for Newhall. After years of delays and suffering on the part of Newhall residents, it is hard to imagine a package of environmental legislation that would better serve our community and our State.

All of these steps are tremendously positive. Those of you who have followed the prior discussion of the soil standards on our site will surely see just how beneficial the new residential soil standards will be. For those new to the topic, we thought it might be helpful to provide the following:

Three reasons to support Senator Crisco's proposed residential soil standards

Reason 1: It's good policy

As pointed out in an op-ed piece by Yale Professor Keith Darden in the Hartford Courant last September, the current soil standards are so strict that ordinary residential soils that pose no risk to public health are classified as "waste" requiring removal or cleanup. In fact, the current lead standard used by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (500 mg/kg) is below the average levels found in typical neighborhoods in Connecticut. If the law were applied, hundreds of thousands of Connecticut homes would require costly soil cleanup. Indeed, full and consistent enforcement of the existing law would have cost trillions of dollars (soil removal and remediation are very costly) and produced no appreciable improvement in public health. There is no question that the current regulation is flawed.

In practice, this meant that even a simple cleanup like Hamden's Newhall site rapidly became prohibitively costly and unlimited, expanding into new neighborhoods with safe soils and no prior history of any dumping or contamination. For years, this project has drawn down DEP's scarce financial resources and occupied personnel that are needed to tackle the real environmental problems that we face. The law clearly needs to change. The reasonable standards proposed in Senator Crisco's bill on carcinogens in soil will protect us from any risks greater than the prospect that we will be killed by lightning (also a 1 in 20,000 lifetime risk). And the EPA's lead guidelines are based on decades of careful research and are already considered to be quite strict. By adopting these new rules, the State will now be able to focus on those sites that are truly contaminated and present a risk. In this way, paradoxically, a less strict standard will mean a much improved environment, since we won't be wasting our time and money "cleaning up" ordinary harmless dirt. Even better, the new law can actually be implemented and enforced, cleanup will be feasible, and the DEP can devote its resources where they are most needed. That's good policy.

Reason 2: It's good law.

One of the central foundations of any society based on the rule of law is that all are equal before the law and that "like cases should be treated alike." Under the current law, that just can't happen. Because the current Connecticut soil standards are so extreme, nearly every neighborhood in Connecticut is in violation (they just don't know it yet because they haven't been tested). But since our state does not have the means to test the soil in every yard in Connecticut, nor does it have the capacity to pay for enforcing the law with so many in violation, the DEP can only enforce the law selectively. Under the current system, any neighborhood where the DEP choses to test the soil will be saddled with a multi-million dollar cleanup, whether it truly needs one or not. In such unlucky neighborhoods, homeowners must live with the stigma of "contamination," find themselves unable to sell their homes for their genuine value, and, ultimately, be evicted from their homes for the months when the soil from their yards is physically removed. Most significantly, because virtually every neighborhood was in violation of the Connecticut environmental regulations, the arbitrary selection of one neighborhood for testing is an act of injustice. With such overly-strict standards, "like" neighborhoods could not possibly be treated "alike": To do so, we'd have to spend trillions of dollars to remove most of the residential topsoil in Connecticut.

When only a few neighborhoods are targeted for multimillion dollar remediations projects, there has been a real danger that the selection of neighborhoods will be based on criteria other than public health or environmental need. As pointed out earlier on this site, Bushnell Park up in Hartford is probably more polluted than Mill Rock Park in Hamden and poses a greater risk to public health, but no one talks about digging it up and evicting the Governor and Legislators from their offices for the duration of the cleanup. The danger that strict soil regulations will be abused to stigmatize and seize the land of people less wealthy or powerful is very real. Newhall is really the first residential neighborhood where the law has been enforced, and it has been a disaster. We have seen how corrupt state environmental contractors can use arbitrary or selective enforcement of the current flawed law to pad their pockets with lucrative investigation and remediation contracts. This is what happened on Prospect Hill. The proposed legislation, because it creates laws that can be enforced fairly and equally, will insure that all homeowners are treated equally under the law.

Reason #3: It's good for the Newhall Neighborhood

As we have pointed out repeatedly, the adoption of more reasonable soil standards is precisely what Newhall needs to move forward. With the new standards, we can focus on cleaning those few areas of the neighborhood that really do have contamination as a result of historical dumping. By setting reasonable standards, we can clean the neighborhood fully, quickly, and at much lower cost. This will mean that no land use restrictions will be necessary, the neighborhood will not be destroyed, and the genuine threat of pollution from trucks and dust will be kept to a minimum. Changing the state soil standards also provides the glue to unite the plans put forward by Dr. Hamid and Dr. Darden. Hamid's plan called for the full remedation of all soil that does not meet the state standard. Darden's plan called for the full remediation of all soil to the EPA lead standard and the "lightning standard" (1 in 20,000). By changing the state standards to reflect the EPA and a more reasonable risk level, Darden and Hamid now support the same plan.

The Perfect Solution for Connecticut and a Model for the Nation

What Senator Crisco has proposed is truly positive, innovative legislation and will place Connecticut in the vanguard of environmental protection nationally. We will be a model for others. Environmentalists like ourselves are pleased that resources currently being wasted to clean up harmless soil will now be channeled to the pressing task of cleaning our air and water, and soils that genuinely pose a risk to public health and the environment. Communities and developers can be pleased that as a result of this legislation, thousands of acres of contaminated land can now be cleaned without prohibitive cost, making new areas available for residential development in a state that has a crisis in affordable housing.

We strongly support our Senators and hope that these proposed bills will move rapidly through the environment committee to the floor of the Connecticut General Assembly.