Barnegat Bay’s advocates turned out in force yesterday to cheer repeatedly as two legislative committees adopted a package of four bills aimed at dealing with pollution problems plaguing one of the state’s most environmentally sensitive and economically vital watersheds.
It was touted as one of the most important steps ever taken in efforts to restore Barnegat Bay. But even its most ardent supporters conceded much more needs to be done to prevent the collapse of the bay from years of sprawl and poor land-use decisions.
“Even if we pass this, the bay is still in crisis,” said Willie DeCamp Jr., president of Save Barnegat Bay, a nonprofit organization based in Lavalette, which came up with the concept of the most controversial bill in the package. It aims to limit the amount of nitrogen washing into the bay by implementing the nation’s most stringent law governing the use of fertilizers.
Runoff from suburban lawns and over-development -- as much of one-third of the land in the Barnegat Bay watershed is paved over -- are widely blamed for causing algae blooms, which deplete oxygen in the water and alter the bay’s ecosystem.
The other bills in the package aim to limit contaminants sweeping into the bay by proposing improvements to stormwater drainage systems, and to prevent soil compaction during construction projects, which also results in runoff washing into the watershed.
The package won approval during a marathon hearing of nearly seven hours in in Toms River, where critics -- primarily golf course representatives, officials from fertilizer companies and business lobbyists -- were widely outnumbered by hundreds of county residents and environmental advocates. Opponents argued the bills, primarily the fertilizer measure, would do little to solve the bay’s problems because much more nitrogen enters the bay from other sources, such as airborne deposition from the burning of fossil fuels.
DeCamp did not dispute that argument. “We have to do something to get off our addiction for fossil fuels,” he said. Still, he argued for the fertilizer bill, which contains a provision requiring fertilizers to contain a minimum of 30 percent of slow-release nitrogen to limit impacts to the bay; he noted that several state university agricultural schools have recommended even higher limits.
But critics argued the science behind that threshold was widely divided, an argument that some legislators on the panel seemed to embrace. Even bay supporters seemed to question its efficacy.
A far bigger question, Hale said, is where the funding is going to come from to fix the thousands of stormwater systems pouring contaminants into the bay. “This is an extraordinary time fiscally. There are lots of nuts and bolts that have to be worked out,” he said.
That issue resonated with Ocean County freeholders who bitterly attacked two bills dealing with stormwater issues, arguing the county has been addressing the issue for years.
“This is a brand new tax on the people of Ocean County,” thundered Freeholder John Bartlett, referring to a provision that would allow the county to impose new fees development that increases runoff to the bay. “They don’t want new taxes. We are not going to do that. This is a state problem. If the state wants to mandate it, then let it fund it.’’
The opposition led some environmentalists to question just how effective the bills would be, suggesting maybe the state needs to set up another regional commission to address the bay’s problems. “If government refuses to protect this resource, we may have to move to another construct,” said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “We need to do these retrofits. If not, this bay is going to die.”
Others said the state needs to do more to control sprawl and bad land-use planning that is contributing to the watershed’s problems. And some questioned why the committee did not address the problems posed by Oyster Creek, which sucks more than 1 billion gallons of water per day out of the bay, a fact some said contributes to and exacerbates the problems with nitrogen loading.
Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), the chairman of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee, noted there are bills pending that would require Exelon, the owner of Oyster Creek, to build cooling towers. He noted they have been put on hold because the state Department of Environmental Protection has ordered the cooling towers as part of a draft permit, which is currently under review.
Perhaps, more pointedly, the DEP did not testify on the bills, although it has said it is working on a plan to help restore Barnegat Bay, which is expected to be issued sometime in the next couple of months.