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Despite Critics' Concerns Over Drinking Water and Sprawl, Water Quality Bill Poised for OK

Legislation would delay rules for sewer service expansions to favor economic growth.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns it could degrade New Jersey's waters. A consultant claims it could lead to the dumping of more than 1 million pounds of pollutants into waterways. It even appears to have united the increasingly fractured environmental movement in the state.

Nonetheless, the lame-duck legislature is poised to approve a bill (S-3156) today that would once again delay water quality management rules, which advocates argue are crucial to protecting drinking water supplies and preventing sprawl.

The issue revolves around where sewer service expansions would be allowed in the state, an issue that drives where economic growth occurs as well as how successful the state is in preserving its open space and farmland. It is a dispute that stretches back years, heating up again when the Department of Environmental Protection adopted water quality management rules in 2008.

For the most part, the dispute focuses on where sewer expansions should occur: In urban areas where treatment plants already have been built to deal with sewage, or less developed areas with environmentally sensitive lands without the capacity to treat wastewater that could adversely affect trout streams and drinking water.

Under the bill, much of the state would revert to the system in place prior to 2008, a time when DEP adopted new water quality management rules that sought to modernize old sewer service maps. Those rules would remove up to 300,000 acres of environmentally-sensitive land that could be sewered and developed in high densities.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) and Assemblyman Albert Cluthinho (D-Essex), would prevent implementation of these rules until 2015, a delay critics say would allow the state Department of Environmental Protection, which supports the bill, time to revamp the rules and weaken them.

The state agency testified in committee that the new rules, while appearing effective on paper, were unworkable in the real world.

The federal EPA disagreed in a letter it sent to Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) who asked the agency for its analysis of the proposed bill.

In the letter from EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck, the agency noted the 2008 rules adopted by the DEP are among the best in the nation, "take a comprehensive approach to wastewater management planning and help reduce the impact of suburban sprawl on New Jersey's environment and public health."

"By delaying implementation of these rules, the bill could undermine years of comprehensive planning and lead to degradation of surface and ground water," according to the EPA letter.

Those concerns were echoed in a $3,000 study commissioned by a variety of environmental groups to address the possible impact of losing up to 300,000 acres environmentally-sensitive land if the bill goes through.

Indeed, even the New Jersey Audubon Society, not an organization usually prone to weigh in on a contentious political football, issued an alert this week over the bill, which cited the Princeton Hydro LLC study, in urging legislators to oppose the measure.

If those 300,000 acres were developed, it could lead to more than 1 million pounds of nitrogen, phosphorous and other pollutants emptying into New Jersey waterways, according to the group.

In addition, another study completed by DeMiccco & Associates LLC, projected the bill, if approved, could lead to an additional $217 million to $435 million in additional wastewater treatment costs to New Jersey businesses and residents.

"The water resources of New Jersey are held in trust on our behalf by the state," said Elliott Ruga, senior policy analyst for the New Jersey Highlands Coalition. "To allow development on the lands that are necessary to maintain our water supply is a betrayal of that trust, and an unacceptable give-away to the building lobby."

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