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NJ Delay on Water Quality Could Land It in Hot Water with Federal EPA

Tom Johnson | January 17, 2014

Critics of new law say it will encourage sprawl, extend sewer lines into environmentally sensitive areas

Loantaka stream

The state may soon be embroiled in a battle with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the former’s stewardship of New Jersey’s water quality programs.

The dispute stems from Gov. Chris Christie signing a bill (A-4531) yesterday that would once again [http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/14/01/06/senate-panel-passes-bill-to-delay-water-quality-regulations/|delay much-contested water quality rules], a step critics argue could spur sprawl in environmentally sensitive areas by allowing easier expansion of sewer lines and septic systems.

This is the second time in two years state lawmakers have approved legislation to put off a deadline for counties to adopt water quality management plans, which govern where and how many sewer lines are built in the state.

To proponents, the bill would give counties and the state more time to map what areas should be allowed for sewer extensions, a move that would allow developers who already have building permits to proceed. Christie signed the bill without any comment in an announcement put out by his press office.

To critics, the bill could undermine decades of progress in cleaning up New Jersey’s waters. Despite those efforts, virtually all the state’s waterways more than four decades after the passage of the Clean Water Act (1972) still fail to meet the three main criteria of the law -- being fishable, swimmable, and drinkable.

“We’ve made tremendous strides dealing with point sources (pollution from wastewater treatment facilities and industrial plants), but those gains have been undermined by sprawl,’’ said David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation. “This was supposed to happen 20 years ago.’’

Other environmentalists agreed.

“This clearly violates the Clean Water Act, and we are going to ask the U.S. EPA to take over water planning for New Jersey and sanction the state for its clear violation of the law,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This dirty deal for dirty water will not stand and we will keep fighting it.’’

For nearly two decades, the EPA has been ordering the state to update its sewer service rules. The agency has repeatedly warned the state against delaying action on the program.

The state Department of Environmental Protection finally acted in 2008, adopting new rules to modernize the maps and set aside 300,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land that would be kept free from sewer lines. Those rules were challenged in court unsuccessfully by developers, but they have found more sympathy with the Legislature and Christie administration, twice winning legislative delays of their implementation.

If those lands are developed, however, it could add as much as $435 million in additional treatment costs to water and wastewater, according to a study by a consultant, DeMicco & Associates.

In the latest legislative effort, EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck echoed concerns she raised when lawmakers originally moved to delay the rules in 2012, resending a letter first objecting to the delay.

“By delaying implementation of these rules, the bill would undermine years of comprehensive planning and lead to degradation of surface and groundwater,’’ according to Enck.

Should the EPA fail to remove oversight of the clean water program from the DEP, Tittel said his organization would go to court to make that happen.

If that litigation is successful, it could have a big financial impact on the state, with New Jersey potentially losing more than a hundred million dollars in federal funds to upgrade sewer treatment plants and other facilities provide drinking water to residents.

New Jersey already faces huge costs in repairing sewage treatment plants flooded during Hurricane Sandy. More than 100 wastewater treatment plants and water treatment facilities incurred $2.6 billion in damage during the superstorm.

“Signing this law proves this administration is not doing its job to protect our waterways and we need the U.S. EPA to remove DEP’s authority over water-quality planning to ensure our drinking water is protected for future generations,’’ Tittel said.

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