Oct. 23 – 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 – highly contaminated land scheduled for cleanup by the federal government – and DiCamillo, the parent of a second grader, was outraged.
"I've begged [the government], 'Please don't do this to our kids,'" DiCamillo said.
But the toxic land purchased for Gloucester City'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 state'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) – the agency that purchased the land – would neither confirm nor deny those reports in correspondence with The NewStandard.
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.