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Sandy hearings begin today

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Lawmakers will probe the state's emergency preparedness and Hurricane Sandy response Friday in the first of a series of joint Senate and Assembly oversight hearings.

The session is scheduled to take place at 1:30 p.m. AshBritt Inc. CEO Randall Perkins has been invited to testify. AshBritt was given a state debris removal contract in the days following Hurricane Sandy. Lawmakers have criticized the process by which Gov. Chris Christie's administration awarded that contract. Instead of putting the contract out for bids, the state simply adopted a 2008 contract the Florida-based firm had signed with Connecticut.

NJBIZ first reported details of the deal back in November.

In addition to questions about the awarding of the contract, environmentalists yesterday drew attention to AshBritt's cleanup record in the Gulf Coast. In a Statehouse press conference, the Sierra Club of New Jersey cited a 2008 U.S. General Accountability Office report, which found two new Superfund sites were created in New Orleans due to improper waste disposal. Numerous other contaminated sites were also reported along the Gulf Coast.

Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey, noted that 260 debris dumping sites were formed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, of which 132 remain. He's worried the suspension of certain environmental rules and a lack of due diligence and oversight could put New Jersey at risk for long-term environmental damage.

Tittel said he's been unable to get answers from the state's Department of Environmental Protection about whether specific environmental safeguards, such as putting liners underneath debris piles, were used.

"We can't get that answered," he said. "What we get out of DEP is, 'People did visual inspections.' Well, did they drive by? Did they stop? Where are the reports? Those are the answers you don't get."

A trio of Democratic lawmakers – Assemblyman Ruben Ramos Jr. (D-Hoboken), Assemblyman Peter Barnes III (D-Edison) and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Trenton) – on Thursday sent a letter to DEP Commissioner Bob Martin asking him to hire an environmental monitor for Sandy cleanup.

"While we are concerned about the lack of transparency in regards to clean up costs, we are equally concerned that the clean-up process be conducted in an environmentally-conscious manner," the lawmakers wrote. "The future of our state demands such diligence, therefore we hope you will heed our request."

The governor's office dismissed the AshBritt concerns as political posturing.

In an email, Christie's office said DEP has carried out more than 800 inspections of temporary disposal sites, and found zero violations. Those inspections include a 24-point compliance checklist. No significant post-closure environmental conditions have been found among the nearly 130 temporary sites that have been closed.

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