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Christie Administration Releases Far-Reaching Plan to Restore Barnegat Bay

Comprehensive blueprint includes shutting down Oyster Creek nuclear plant by end of decade

The Christie administration yesterday unveiled a comprehensive plan to restore Barnegat Bay, a blueprint that includes closing the Oyster Creek nuclear unit, the nation’s oldest operating nuclear plant, by the end of the decade.

The closing of the 645-megawatt plant in Lacey Township, a priority of environmental groups for years, would stop the withdrawal of more than one billion gallons of water from the bay each day, a process that kills millions of clams and crab larvae.

Exelon, the owner of the facility, agreed to close the plant under an administrative consent order with the New Jersey DEP. The agreement commits the company to taking specific actions to clean up the site, such as restoring wetlands.

Other parts of the plan outlined by the administration reflect actions already being taken in the legislature, including a commitment to sign a fertilizer-runoff bill that has been described as the toughest in the nation. The bill would curb the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen entering the Barnegat Bay ecosystem, which leads to algae blooms.

Stormwater Runoff

The Governor’s plan also includes $100 million over a decade to deal with stormwater systems. Stormwater runoff accounts for two-thirds of the nitrogen loading of the bay. "That’s real money to deal with one of the biggest problems affecting the bay," said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. The administration also pledged to prioritize land acquisition in the watershed through the state’s Green Acre program.

"Barnegat Bay is one of my top environmental priorities," Christie said in a statement issued by his office. "After years of inaction and the bay’s declining ecological health, we finally have a comprehensive plan that will prevent further degradation of the bay and begin the restoration of this incredible New Jersey resource."

The plan was praised by many environmentalists who welcomed the establishment of a firm date, December 31, 2019, for the plant’s closure.

"Once again, the Christie administration, unlike the Corzine administration, engaged in meaningful dialogue that resulted in positive action," said David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation.

Skeptical Assessments

Others were less enthusiastic. Dena Mottola Jabroska, executive director of Environment New Jersey, noted the framework of a similar deal to close down Oyster Creek in about a decade was presented to environmentalists last year by the Corzine administration.

"That was something that wouldn’t deal with the problem quickly enough," recalled Jabroska. “I didn’t think the bay could handle another 10 years of massive ecological damage."

Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed. "This is the same deal that was offered by Jon Corzine almost two years ago that was rejected by the environmental community," he said. "This is the sweetheart deal for Exelon because they get to run the plant for ten years, make a lot of money, and then close it."

Pringle, however, said that was not the case. "I never heard anything like this," he said.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, noted the Corzine proposal included holding off closing Oyster Creek until after a new nuclear unit is built in South Jersey, which is under consideration by Public Service Enterprise Group.

Bad for Ratepayers?

Asked about the Christie proposal, Smith replied, "If true, it’s good news for Barnegat Bay, but it has the potential to be bad for the rest of the state as to what they pay on their electric bills." He was referring to the fact New Jersey residents pay some of the highest electric bills in the country, partly because of a lack of generation capacity and congestion on the power grid.

In a press conference yesterday, Christie acknowledged Oyster Creek needs to be replaced, saying administration officials are working on ways to build new power plants here, as well as noting there is legislation to do likewise.

Joseph Bowring, president of Monitoring Analytics and a former executive with PJM Interconnection, agreed. However, he noted given the timing of the announcement, it affords plenty of time to develop replacement power.

Even though Exelon won a 20-year renewal of its license last year from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the plant’s future has been uncertain for several years. Environmental groups have a court challenge underway to block that license renewal, and the company was ordered to build expensive cooling towers by the Department of Environmental Protection earlier this year as a way to reduce fish kills. Exelon vowed to shut down the plant if it had to build the cooling towers, which some said could run as much $800 million.

Still, the plant has been very lucrative to Exelon. The plant cost only $10 million when it was purchased from GPU Inc. a decade ago.

Under the agreement to shut down the facility, Exelon pledged to work closely with state, county and local governments to ensure an environmentally safe shutdown. An outside safety review panel will review plant operations, issue reports and hold annual public hearings.

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