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Federal Agency Won't Help Fund Barnegat Bay Cleanup

Letter from EPA says pollution plan should take three years to implement, rather than the administration's suggested five.

The state has been rebuffed in its efforts to secure financial assistance to clean up Barnegat Bay, but federal officials think New Jersey ought to speed up its efforts to stem pollution flowing into the threatened watershed anyway.

In a letter to New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Bob Martin, the regional office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said budget constraints prevented the agency from helping the state implement its comprehensive cleanup plan for Barnegat Bay, although the office offered analytical support for a six-month water monitoring sampling from the bay.

More importantly, EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck noted in the letter that the agency believes the state can develop a plan to control nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus -- which are used in fertilizers -- from draining into the bay within three years. That timeframe is significant because earlier this year the Christie administration conditionally vetoed a bill that would have directed the state agency to develop a pollution plan for nutrient runoff within two years.

An Economic Engine

Restoring Barnegat Bay, a huge economic engine because of recreational fishing and boating, has become a top priority of both the legislature and Christie administration. But years of poor land-use decisions and sprawl have made the 660-square mile watershed the second most eutrophoic bay in America, a body of water where runoff from nutrients is choking off marine life.

The state did not specify how much money it was seeking to implement its cleanup plan, according to Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the DEP. He said the federal agency mistakenly assumed the state was moving ahead with a plan to set total maximum daily loadings (TMDLs), which would establish limits on how much pollution could flow into the bay.

"We need more science and data before we decide whether a TMDL is needed," Ragonese said.

One of the most effective tools to control that runoff, argue some environmentalists, is to establish TMDLs to limit the amount of pollution flowing into the bay. This is similar to what the federal environmental agency is doing to deal with problems in Chesapeake Bay.

In conditionally vetoing the bill to set TMDLs, Gov. Chris Christie said that the timeframes are not realistic, and suggested giving the state up to five years to set the standards to determine whether Barnegat Bay is an impaired waterway.

A Feasible Goal

The EPA appeared to disagree with that assessment. "We believe the establishment of this TMDL within the next three years is a feasible goal," Enck said in the letter dated June 15, 2011. "My staff is available to provide the NJDEP the technical support it may need to expeditiously establish this TMDL."

Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the letter was an unusual shot across the bow from the federal agency. "When the EPA sends a message like that, they're saying, 'you’re playing games with Barnegat Bay and you need to go and clean it up,'" he said.

"We believe that a TMDL within three years will do more to protect the bay than all the meetings and press conferences of the Christie administration," Tittel said, a veiled reference to an event held last week by the state agency in Toms River that left many conservationists unhappy.

But John Martin, a spokesman for EPA, said the agency was not trying to send a message. "What we’re saying, is, based on our experience, we think the work can be done in three years," he said.

The 10-Point Plan

At the event, the DEP announced, among other things, that it had initiated a six-month ecosystem-based water-quality monitoring program that will greatly improve scientific understanding of the bay. The event touted the 10-point plan the administration has unveiled to restore Barnegat Bay, a plan that includes the shutdown of the Oyster Creek nuclear station, which sucks more than a billion gallons of water a day out of the bay.

But conservationists were miffed that questions at the event were screened and the agency failed to address one of the biggest sources of problems -- air pollution.

"It is a disgrace that six months into the process, the commissioner does not even know that by far the largest vector of nitrogen into Barnegat Bay is air pollution," said Willie DeCamp of Save Barnegat Bay. "The Governor's ten points are silent on air pollution. Save Barnegat Bay came to the event wanting to constructively and interactively address that fatal flaw."

"If Commissioner Martin can't listen to what the public has to say, Barnegat Bay can never be saved," DeCamp said. "You can't do the whole thing with bureaucrats. Air pollution will not go away by being ignored."

Ragonese, however, argued that the commissioner and his team responsible for implementing the 10-point cleanup plan for the bay emphasized they are moving forward with the scheme.

Unlike Tittel, some environmentalists question how effective TMDLs are in controlling pollution, especially if they are not complemented by the funding necessary to reduce nutrient loading in waterways.

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