For the second time in three months, lawmakers have adopted bills aimed at restoring Barnegat Bay, long regarded as one of the nation’s most threatened estuaries.
Following up on action taken in August, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee voted to require several state agencies to take more aggressive steps to halt pollution flowing into the bay from roads, stormwater basins and other areas.
Probably the most significant bill approved by the committee is a measure (S-2341) requiring the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to determine if the bay is "impaired," and, if so, to establish limits on certain pollutants, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, now entering the watershed.
The approach is similar to one being used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address problems in Chesapeake Bay, and is a tactic favored by many environmental groups as a necessary step to dealing with degradation of the bay.
David Glass, deputy chief of staff at DEP, told the committee the agency expects to unveil its recommended policies for restoration of Barnegat Bay by the end of the year. Glass urged the committee to hold off action on the bill until then, a request rejected by lawmakers.
"The legislature has to make a statement," said Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen). "We need to do it now."
Several environmentalists agreed, urging the committee to amend the bill and declare the bay impaired. Otherwise, the DEP will shy away from making that declaration as a way of avoiding the complex task of setting limits (or Total Daily Maximum Loads) on pollutants, argued Bill Wolfe, New Jersey director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the committee, deferred on that request, saying it might trigger a veto from the governor as an intrusion of executive authority. Smith, however, said he would ask the Office of Legislative Services (OLS) for a legal opinion on whether the legislature could declare the bay impaired.
The committee also voted to release a bill (S-2275) that directs the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to conduct a study of all state-owned stormwater basins, or those owned by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, in the Barnegat Bay watershed. In the study, the agency would identify which storm basins should be repaired based on need, and then establish a priority list for dealing with the problems.
Once completed, the bill would require the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and New Jersey Transit to include repairs of the basins in their annual capital budget plans.
The bill came about after Ocean County freeholders balked at doing a county-wide study of stormwater problems, saying the state is as much a part of the problem, an assessment with which Smith concurred.
Previously, the committee had adopted a bill aimed at reducing nitrogen flowing into the bay by approving what some say is the nation’s most stringent law governing the use of fertilizers. The bill, opposed by industry, was the subject of a lengthy negotiation session among various stakeholders yesterday, and an agreement in concept was reached, according to several participants.