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Opinion: The High Price of Lower Environmental Standards

New Jersey can’t afford proposed legislation that locks regulatory rules at federal levels.

Reduce government, roll back regulations and watch the recession disappear. Or so today’s popular approach to fixing the economy goes.

Just consider legislation introduced by South Jersey Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D – Gloucester). Bill A-2486 would make it difficult, if not impossible, for New Jersey regulators to propose any new rule that would exceed federal standards.

At first blush, it looks like a common-sense way to ease the pain of the recession by capping the costs of regulatory compliance. But on closer examination, it’s not so simple. And when it comes to the environment, it could be downright counter-productive.

New Jersey has a well-deserved reputation for having some of the toughest environmental laws and regulations anywhere in the country. But there are good reasons for this stringency. New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation, and it faces complete build-out sooner than any other state. It’s also suffered a damaging legacy of extensive air, water and soil contamination from manufacturing that predates the establishment of environmental standards.

While we might not have as many Superfund sites and smokestacks as the rest of the country likes to think, our environment and our people have been under assault since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. So it’s no wonder citizens have ordered their government to put rules in place for protecting air and drinking water. And as a result of the legislative and regulatory efforts of the last 40 years, New Jersey’s environment is in fact demonstrably cleaner and healthier. We have made significant progress in cleaning up our water and air and in safeguarding public health.

That’s not a reason to relax the rules. It’s a reason to carry on. And there’s economic justification for doing so.

Viewing the relaxation of rules from an economic perspective, we must consider not only the savings to the regulated party but also the costs to society. These include higher priced healthcare to account for the increases in cancer, emphysema, and many other illnesses directly linked to environmental contaminants, as well as the reduced productivity of a labor force suffering higher occupational exposures. Risk assessment science is now sufficiently sophisticated that we can accurately predict the additional human health impacts, both the number of illnesses and the probable deaths, that will likely result from relaxing standards. Surely these costs should be part of the equation.

There are other costs to consider. Even with stringent rules that sometimes exceed government minimums, we still regularly fail to meet a variety of federal standards for clean air and clean water -- to the degree that we sometimes have to implement what are known as “extraordinary measures.” Rolling state standards back in the face of non-compliance with federal rules could subject the state to economic sanctions, and ultimately, even a federal takeover of some or all of the major regulatory programs.

Then there’s the impact on the overwhelming majority of the regulated community who have already made considerable investments in complying with New Jersey’s tough rules. Do we really want to punish the very companies that have followed the rules by now allowing their competition to play by less stringent ones?

Finally, there’s the less quantifiable but undeniable cost of lost reputation. Why should we be proud of living in a state that is no cleaner or healthier than is minimally required? Do we really want to play to the Jersey stereotype by regulating industry no more carefully than, say, Louisiana or Mississippi? Are we actually prepared to backslide on the progress we have made in cleaning up our waters, including the lakes and beachfronts that draw so many tourists here?

Rolling back New Jersey’s stringent environmental standards could exact a price substantially higher than any temporary benefit conferred by reducing the cost of compliance. It’s not a common-sense solution; it’s shortsighted, and it represents a retreat to mediocrity.

Michael Catania is president of Conservation Resources, a non-profit organization. He is a former Deputy Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and was the principal author of the Pinelands Protection Act. He also serves as an open space advisor to both the Pinelands Commission and the Highlands Council. The views expressed in this article are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservation Resources, the Pinelands Commission, the Highlands Council, or the NJDEP.

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