Since the state began in 2009 handing off day-to-day control of environmental cleanup to the private sector, the monthly rate of completed cases has risen almost 30 percent compared to the two years before the program began, according to data provided by the DEP.
But as the process accelerates, environmentalists worry that without direct state oversight, lands on which people could one day live and play are not being cleaned up to state standards and could present a public health risk.
Bill Wolfe, a former DEP official and frequent critic of the agency, said allowing environmental-cleanup firms, which are often paid by the polluters, to police themselves would inevitably lead to shortcuts.
"They're supposed to be the white hats protecting the public health and the environment, but at the same time, they're answering to their clients," he said. The theory that the cleanup professionals "would serve the public interest and do a straight job is ludicrously naive."
Until a few years ago, any piece of land found to be contaminated - though not so tainted as to require intervention by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - was assigned a case manager employed by the state. That person would review thousands of pages of documents and approve each step of the cleanup, a process that often lasted years.
Now, property owners hire private firms that manage the cleanup and submit scheduled reports to the DEP for review by a 20-person team. More in-depth review is ordered only if a discrepancy is discovered.
Mike Pisauro, an environmental lawyer who sits on the Site Remediation Professional Licensing Board, which oversees the more than 500 professionals licensed to perform site cleanups, said the auditing process the board was supposed to use to keep tabs on the firms was relatively ineffectual.
"Each month, the board picks five random names and sends them questionnaires, but we don't get all their notes and their reports," he said. "The board has the ability to do its own testing, to get all the [firms'] records." The law "gives us a lot more authority to do things than we're doing right now."
The decision to privatize the cleanup program was made under former Gov. Jon S. Corzine in response to criticism that the existing system was so backed up and onerous sites were not getting cleaned and therefore couldn't be reused.
From its early days, privatization was cheered by developers. At a legislative hearing in 2010, an executive with K. Hovnanian builders described the discovery of additional contamination at a former brewery in Trenton that might have derailed an 84-house development the company planned.
"Under the old program, we would have done work-plan submissions. That would have taken DEP time to review, evaluate, give us comments," Hovnanian vice president John Semple testified. "This particular project probably would have been stalled for about a year."
The number of sites awaiting cleanup stands at a little more than 14,000, down from a few years ago, according to the DEP.
For the industrial sector, which is responsible for paying for most of the cleanups, progress still is not fast enough. Hal Bozarth, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, which represents the chemical and petroleum industries, said the cleanup standards remained too strict. He questioned whether the increase in completed cases wasn't just a matter of the environmental firms' focusing on easier cases.
"We've gotten different numbers from different people at DEP at different times," he said. "We don't know if they're comparing apples to apples."
For those who own land near the contaminated sites, who were used to dealing with government officials rather than private firms to answer their questions, the program has proved frustrating.
"The law says they need to communicate with the public. So they put a sign up and say, 'We don't have to answer any questions, we don't have to call you back,' and that's not right," said Gaspare Campisi, who is trying to develop waterfront property adjacent to a former gas-storage site on Atlantic City's back bay.
Critics contend the polluters have too much influence over the cleanup process.
The environmental-cleanup industry holds six of 11 spots on the licensing board that audits the private companies and hears complaints about their work. Even if the board decided to take action, the financial and legal ramifications of revoking a firm's license would require establishing not just that an error had been made, but also that gross negligence had been committed - something difficult to prove in court, Pisauro said.
Jorge Berkowitz, another board member and owner of an environmental-cleanup firm, did not return a call for comment.
State officials said environmentalists' concerns were unfounded.
"The environmental community dug their heels in early on," DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said. "At this point, if they really looked at it honestly, they would say this is better. The old system really wasn't working."
Contact James Osborne
at 856-779-3876, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @osborneja.