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Policing Corporate Polluters.

Paterson, New Jersey

In January, the nation's first "right-to-act" law went into effect. The measure gives the 494,000 residents of Passaic County, New Jersey, the right to establish neighborhood committees to conduct on-site surveys of facilities they suspect may pose environmental health threats.

Passaic County is home to the Heterene Chemical Company and many other businesses that use toxic chemicals. On June 12, a toxic cloud drifted from Heterene to a nearby public school, forcing the emergency evacuation of 620 people, according to The Record, a local newspaper. Fifty-three students and five adults were hospitalized.

Heterene, which makes pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, is one of about 170 chemical plants in New Jersey subject to special inspections by the state Department of Environmental Protection because it uses highly hazardous materials.

Although the department had inspected Heterene at least ten times since 1993, inspectors missed the fact that the company did not have a permit to use the extremely hazardous chemical known as Cresol--the chemical that wafted over the Paterson school. Inspectors also overlooked the haphazard storage of 1,100 drums of toxic substances, some of which were leaking and deteriorating. Several state and county agencies are conducting criminal investigations of the company. No results have been announced.

The new law allows twenty-five or more neighbors or employees to petition the county health officer for creation of a Neighborhood Hazard Prevention Advisory Committee to monitor specific facilities. The committees will have authority to conduct walk-through surveys of plant premises, accompanied by technical experts. If the company refuses to cooperate with a survey, the county can sue on behalf of the citizens.

"Right-to-act" laws are a natural follow-up on the "right-to-know" laws around the country that give residents and workers the ability to find out about the toxic substances that companies in their communities are using.

Many companies don't like the new law.

"I don't think there's any other democratic society in the world that allows laws like this," Jim Sinclair, first vice president of the New Business and Industry Association, told a local reporter. "Nobody allows vigilante groups to go into private property."

The Passaic measure may be the first environmental law in the country that allows a community to have a say in regulating privately owned companies. And residents have good reason to be curious about what's inside the gates of local plants: According to federal government data, plants in Passaic County produce more reduction-related waste than nine of the country's fifty states.

For more information, contact the New Jersey Work Environment Council, 198 West State St., 3rd Floor., Trenton, NJ 08608. Or call (609) 695-7100.

Rick Engler is director of the New Jersey Work Environment Council, which helped pass the "right-to-act" law.
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Author:ENGLER, RICK
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Mar 1, 1999
Words:452
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