It is not too often that the business community heaps praise upon the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), but that is what occurred yesterday when the agency held a public hearing on a rule that would allow it to waive certain environmental regulations.
The proposal was described as a commonsense approach to dealing with environmental rules, which by their very complexity often conflict with the agency’s other regulations or with guidelines enacted by other areas of state government, according to business lobbyists.
"I can’t tell you the last time I testified in favor of a DEP rule," said Richard Hluchan, a longtime environmental and land-use attorney in New Jersey. "This is a step in the right direction. I think it’s long overdue."
That view was not held by the environmental community, which in an equally rare show of unity spoke out strongly against the proposal, saying it was written so vaguely it would almost certainly lead to abuses and favors for those politically connected.
"This proposal gives too much discretion to the DEP," said David Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation. "This will weaken environmental protections. It’s only a question of how much it will increase the role of politics and decrease the role of science in the agency’s decision-making."
Pringle, as did virtually every member of an environmental group who testified in a packed hearing room at DEP headquarters in Trenton, called on the agency to table or withdraw the rule.
The proposal, spurred by an executive order issued by Gov. Chris Christie shortly after taking office, aims to remove unreasonable impediments to economic growth as long as doing so does not compromise protections for the environment or public health, according to a press release issued by the state agency. Pringle called the press release "misleading" at best.
The agency would be allowed to consider a possible waiver of a regulation only if it met one of four special conditions: if it conflicted with other state or federal rules; if it were unduly burdensome; if there would be a "net environmental benefit" or if there were a public emergency.
Helen Henderson, policy advocate of the American Littoral Society, and others said the rule proposal, if adopted, would lead to a complete loss of certainty and predictability in permitting at the agency and create an atmosphere "ripe for abuse’" by lobbyists and developers.
Others noted that the agency already has waiver provisions in 98 of its existing rules. When they exist, they were carefully crafted by lawmakers drawing up the statue, said Jaclyn Rhoads of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.
But Hluchan argued the parade of problems with the general waiver proposal would not materialize. He noted the Pinelands Commission has had a similar general waiver rule for years. "It hasn’t been a problem at the Pinelands and it won’t be a problem at DEP."
Other business lobbyists agreed.
"New Jersey has a history of over-regulating those who want to grow jobs and improve the economy, which ultimately results in lost economic opportunities," said Mike Egenton, a senior vice president at the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. "We now have a process and procedure in place that will provide the business community with some flexibility and predictability."
Tony Russo, director of regulatory affairs at the Chemical Industry Council, called the proposal "something that is sorely needed." By proposing this rule, Russo noted the department recognizes that ‘"one size fits all" is not a proper approach to all regulatory activity.