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Freeholders yield on tours of hazardous plants

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Freeholders yield on tours of hazardous plants

Thursday, August 12, 1999

Staff Writer

Following an uproar from business groups, Passaic County freeholders have softened a proposal that would allow neighbors of hazardous industries to conduct plant inspections.

The new measure makes it voluntary -- instead of mandatory -- for chemical plants and other companies handling dangerous materials to give tours to concerned residents.

The compromise addresses concerns of state and local business groups that lobbied heavily against the initial proposal.

Freeholder Director Lois Cuccinello said that although the new proposal is weaker, it would still make Passaic County the first in the state to formally involve neighbors in monitoring hazardous industries.

"This act would put residents in the role of being an extra pair of eyes," she said.

Cuccinello and Freeholder Georgia Scott, who together launched the proposal, said the county will exert some pressure on businesses to respond to residents' concerns about safety.

"We know the majority of the businesses in the county are operating above board and according to regulations," Scott said. "This is certainly a way of weeding out those who are not."

The revised measure will come before the Freeholder Board on Tuesday, less than two weeks after a chemical fire that was the latest in a string of such incidents in the county.

The Aug. 8 blaze at CCP Inc. in West Paterson injured one person and caused the evacuation of 100 others. It was the sixth fire at the company in two years.

Earlier chemical fires and leaks led Cuccinello and Scott last year to propose forming neighborhood hazard prevention advisory committees.

In April 1998, an explosion at a Morton International dye plant in Paterson injured nine workers and sent toxic dust over the neighborhood. Two months later, a release of noxious fumes, allegedly from Heterene Chemical Co., forced the evacuation of a city school and sent 53 children and five adults to a hospital.

In September, freeholders unanimously approved a resolution establishing the concept of neighborhood advisory committees.

When business groups found out about the proposal, they launched an aggressive campaign to discourage the board from moving forward with it.

Business representatives argued that citizen inspections of companies would infringe on property rights, risk the loss of trade secrets, and open the door to lawsuits from neighbors who might be injured during the tours.

Dennis Santillo of the Passaic County Chambers of Commerce, which represents about 2,500 businesses, said his group also worried that the initial proposal would discourage companies from locating in the area.

"We thought a mandatory program would set Passaic County apart," he said. "That would thwart economic development."

Following the protests, all of the freeholders except Cuccinello and Scott backed away from the proposal. Cuccinello's and Scott's two fellow Democrats quietly criticized the mandatory nature of the program, while the board's three Republicans actively spoke out against the effort.

Scott and Cuccinello then began a series of meetings with county business leaders that resulted in the compromise proposal.

The new measure, like the first, enables residents to petition the county health officer if they have reason to suspect unsafe practices at a chemical plant, factory, or other company that handles hazardous materials.

If 15 neighbors sign the petition, the health officer will try to arrange a meeting between them and the company. Residents can then request an inspection of the business if the meeting fails to satisfy their concerns.

But the difference with the new proposal is that businesses can refuse both to meet with residents or to allow a tour. In that case, the health officer could go alone to inspect the facility for safety violations -- a right that already exists under state law.

Copyright 1999 Bergen Record Corp.

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