In a startling move, the state Department of Environmental Protection is proposing to remove portions of Barnegat Bay from an official list of waterways targeted for special cleanup efforts.
The proposal, made earlier this month to the federal Environmental Protection Agency as part of a biennial regulatory process identifying impaired waters in New Jersey, would essentially freeze any action to take steps to clean up the bay, which many people fear is dying, according to environmentalists.
The regulatory move by the DEP is especially troubling to conservationists and other advocates of cleaning up the bay in the wake of a bleak study released earlier this month by the Rutgers University Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences. It concluded overdevelopment and resulting pollution is leading to a long-term decline in the bay’s ecosystem.
It also raises questions about the Christie administration’s commitment to clean up the bay, an issue the governor has repeatedly touted in speeches and press releases. Both Christie and the Legislature have made reversing the bay’s decline a top priority, passing a series of bills to thwart some of the biggest pollution threats to the bay’s health.
The Rutgers study found that problems caused by pollution of the estuary range from a sharp decline in eel grass, an important habitat for marine life, to a steep drop in the hardshell clam populations, as well as an increase in sea nettles, a type of jellyfish that has made it impossible to swim in some areas of the bay, including portions proposed for delisting by the DEP.
“All the data and DEP regulations require a cleanup plan, but the administration doesn’t have the political will to do it,’’ said David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, an organization that endorsed Christie during his gubernatorial run. “Instead, they declare victory and walk away.’’
The DEP argued that the issue is more complex than that, saying the proposal was submitted to the EPA based on two years of “grab’’ samples which showed the portions of the bay designated for delisting were meeting federal standards. Still, the DEP is expected to gather more data on the bay’s health, according to Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the agency.
“In all likelihood, this proposal will be withdrawn,’’ Hajna said.
In making the proposal to the EPA, the state agency suggested reversing “impairment’’ designations due to low dissolved oxygen in the water, a finding disputed by scientists at the Barnegat Bay Partnership, an organization designed to lead efforts to restore the waterway.
Such a designation triggers a requirement that the state develop and execute a recovery plan, dubbed a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), a sort of pollution diet, limiting how much runoff enters the waterway. The estuary’s most pressing problem involves eutrophication, a process by which nutrients in polluted runoff, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, generate rapid algae blooms.
Some environmentalists suggested the DEP proposal was submitted to the EPA to avoid having to establish TMDLs for the bay, noting that the department has opposed such a move in the past. Christie vetoed a bill that would have required such action last year.
Hajna said the proposal had nothing to do with that issue. “It’s a red herring,’’ he said.
Environmentalists disputed that view.
“All of the ecological trends in Barnegat Bay are pointing downwards and this critical water body may soon reach a tipping point to becoming a dead zone,’’ said Bill Wolfe, director of New Jersey Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.’’
“It’s a remarkable move in the wake of the Rutgers study and with the bay on the verge of ecological collapse,’’ said Wolfe.
Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, agreed.
“There’s 30 years of scientific history that characterizes the pollution problems in the bay,’’ Dillingham said. “It is becoming more and more likely they are avoiding the hard steps to control development in the bay’s watersheds.’’