Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Lessons of Hamilton, New Jersey

Following up on yesterday's post about W.R. Grace's contamination of Hamilton, NJ, we present here for your entertainment and education an instructive little anecdote about how one phone call from a small but knowledgeable public interest group can set off a very positive reaction.

In the case of Grace and Hamilton, Jim Young of the New Jersey Work Environment Council first tipped off the Trenton Times to the Grace contamination story in Hamilton. Young had been alerted by an email from NYCOSH about the status of national monitoring of Libby-related sites on an Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)website which had a map showing "hotspots" in New Jersey.

The tip led to dozens of front page articles, charges levied by the state Attorney General and a general public outcry, followed by state assembly hearings. The hearings were not only generated useful and sometimes shocking information, but also allowed a number of former workers and their families to testify about their exposures and begin connecting not just with one another, but also with medical, legal and other resources. And the hearings forced Grace to send a team of high-priced executives and attorneys all the way to New Jersey to explain to these people why they couldn't comment due to “ongoing litigation.”

Out of the hearings have come a legislative proposal that would fill gaps in environmental regulation identified at the hearings:
The bills would increase penalties for providing false information to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), eliminate the statute of limitations for certain environmental crimes, require the DEP to notify a municipality if there is contamination within its borders and require anyone involved in a cleanup to notify the township administration where it is taking place
Like almost everything else that brings progress in workplace (or environmental) safety and health -- good news article, protective regulations, legislative action and scientific studies -- good things don't happen by themselves. Someone is taking the initiative to make things happen.