A state proposal to allow licensed environmental consultants to oversee the cleanup of contaminated sites is drawing heated criticism from environmental advocates and organized labor.

The consultants are part of a broader proposal by the Corzine administration to overhaul New Jersey's overburdened Site Remediation Program. The decades-old program oversees the cleanup of 20,000 contaminated sites across the state, ranging from homeowners' leaky oil tanks to Superfund sites.

Proponents say the current system allows contaminated sites to languish in a sea of red tape, sometimes for years. They argue that the delays are bad for both the economy and the environment.

Former Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Lisa Jackson, now the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said at a state legislative committee hearing in April that "doing something fast doesn't mean you do worse."

"Doing something fast and carefully, with the appropriate amount of checks and balances - which I feel sure this committee could help ensure - means that work will happen and that a cleanup actually takes place, because this is about enabling cleanups. And that, in and of itself, I think, is a very good thing," Jackson said.

The Senate Environment Committee is scheduled to discuss a bill today sponsored by Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex) that would establish a licensing program for site-remediation professionals, among other steps.

Critics of the proposal argue that the consultants would amount to privatization, with the state outsourcing responsibilities that should remain the domain of government. Environmental advocates say the consultants pose an inherent conflict of interest because the parties responsible for cleaning up contamination would get to hire their own consultants to oversee remediations.

"Everyone agrees the cleanup program is broken, but rather than addressing the root of the problem, a poorly funded and staffed program, the Corzine administration would let the fox watch the henhouse," said David Pringle of the New Jersey Environmental Federation. "Toxic sites like Xanadu, Encap and Kiddie Kollege show the need for better, not smaller, government, and when it comes to toxic waste, the polluters can and should pay for it."

That the Site Remediation Program needs change is undisputed. The backlog of sites requiring attention has mushroomed, and the number of DEP staffers in the program has not kept pace. According to environmental advocates, the Site Remediation Program had 270 case managers overseeing 12,000 sites in 1994, compared with 150 case managers for 20,000 sites today.

The infamous Kiddie Kollege case in Franklin Township, Gloucester County, happened after a former thermometer factory was mysteriously dropped from the state's list of contaminated sites, along with about 1,800 others, under then-DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell. The Kiddie Kollege day care was shuttered in 2006 after more than 60 children and babies were exposed to potentially dangerous levels of mercury vapors in the former thermometer factory. The situation was uncovered by a DEP inspector who was surprised to find a day care center had been allowed to open on one of the sites that had been on the toxic-waste list, although it had never been cleaned up.

Under the DEP's proposal to make over the Site Remediation Program, New Jersey would issue licenses to environmental consultants, who could review cases and determine appropriate remedies for the contaminated sites.

Assistant DEP Commissioner Irene Kropp said during the April hearing that the state would maintain oversight over about 1,000 sites. DEP spokeswoman Elaine Makatura said the department had yet to determine what criteria would be used to determine those sites. An additional 4,000 to 5,000 sites involve only homeowners' oil tanks. The licensed consultants would be allowed to direct the cleanups of the approximately 14,000 remaining cases.

The proposal was modeled after a similar program in Massachusetts, though with some key differences. In New Jersey, for example, the state would maintain control over what Kropp called "inherently governmental functions," such as issuing no-further-action letters, which say that no further cleanup is necessary.

In New Jersey, the state would audit a limited number of the cases overseen by consultants. The state would also have the authority to discipline consultants. Because the licensing program would take some time to set up, Kropp said, the state initially would grandfather in environmental consultants who have been working in the state for the last 10 to 15 years.

The New Jersey Builders Association, among other business interests, supports the idea of the licensed site professionals, but it expressed concerns about the DEP's receiving expanded authority to call for specific remedies at particular sites.

In Massachusetts, Janine Commerford, assistant commissioner for the state's Bureau of Waste Site Cleanup, said officials there were pleased with how the program had worked. The system to remediate contaminated sites has become a lot more efficient, and the "vast majority" of the work by the licensed site professionals has been "very competent," she said.

"Most of the licensed site professionals are very, very good at what they do," she said.

Environmentalists like some elements of the administration's proposal, including allowing the DEP more authority to choose specific remedies and more requirements to notify the public about the sites and potential remedies.

But they argue that the central element of the proposal, the licensed site professionals, is a bad idea because the state should not be delegating its responsibility to protect the public.

"The state has a constitutional obligation to protect our safety, including ensuring that contaminated sites are remediated," said Mike Pisauro of the New Jersey Environmental Lobby. "It can't say, 'The job's too hard to protect our citizens, we want someone else to do it,' and pass the buck, but that's exactly what the state's doing here."

"We have seen time and time again consultants telling us the pollution is remediated and safe only to find out at great expense it's not," Pisauro added.

Adam Liebtag, a staff representative for Communications Workers of America Local 1034, which represents DEP employees, said the proposal would reduce DEP staff professionals to "checklist checkers" with little real authority.

"Morale is very low," Liebtag said of the DEP. "People feel like the administration is making decisions to privatize or outsource the very reasons that they became environmental professionals to begin with. Not having the resources or tools to do your job properly is disheartening enough, but when the department decides to just outsource it, that's a crushing blow to morale."

Contact staff writer Adrienne Lu at 609-989-8990 or alu@phillynews.com.