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State DEP Withdraws Rule Changes, Avoids Clash with Lawmakers

Agency agrees to revamp proposal opponents said could adversely affect water quality and increase risk of flooding

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Averting a confrontation with the Legislature, the state Department of Environmental Protection yesterday agreed to withdraw and rework a contentious proposal opponents said would threaten water quality and increase flooding.

The decision by the agency comes as lawmakers were poised to adopt a resolution that would have led to the rule proposal being rescinded, an unusual reproach of the department by the legislative branch under an obscure provision of the state constitution.

Instead, top DEP officials told the Senate Environment and Energy Committee they would make material changes in the rule proposal, which has generated enormous criticism from virtually the entire environmental community since it was unveiled last June.

For environmentalists, the DEP’s withdrawal of the proposal is a rare victory in what they view as a concerted effort by the Christie administration to roll back stringent protections to safeguard New Jersey’s air, land, and water. For the most part, conservationists have lost frequent battles over revamping those standards.

DEP officials and business lobbyists touted the proposal as a streamlining of overly complex regulations without undermining environmental protections. The massive 936-page rule constituted a significant revamping of three major permitting programs dealing with flood hazard, stormwater, and coastal management.

In bowing to pressure, the DEP said it would address concerns over protections and buffer zones for the state’s most pristine waters and their headwaters — issues raised by conservationists as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, both of which suggested the proposed changes conflicted with federal clean-water regulations.

Initially, the DEP told lawmakers they had met with the EPA and assuaged their concerns, a characterization that turned out to be misleading at best. Ray Cantor, a special assistant to the commissioner, was conciliatory in his appearance before the committee yesterday. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also expressed concerns about changes to the flood-hazard rules as inconsistent with federal strictures.

“You never get something right the first time you do it,’’ Cantor said. The department is continuing to meet with EPA officials to address their concerns and hopes to have a reworked rule out sometime around May, he said.

After hearing the department’s commitment to redo the rules to address the concerns raised by opponents, the committee held off voting on the resolution (SCR-66) until it takes a look at the revised proposal.

“We want to work with the administration as long as at the end of the day, the environment is not compromised,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex). “I don’t think we necessarily want to be at war with the administration.’’

But several environmentalists urged the panel to move the resolution along, expressing skepticism that the department will make meaningful and substantive changes that protect water quality and prevent flooding.

“We don’t trust the DEP,’’ said David Pringle, campaign director for Clean Water Action. “This administration has shown it can’t be trusted when it comes to protecting the environment.’’

Smith, however, said it is only fair to give the department an opportunity to “correct’’ the rules. “It’s a situation of no harm, no foul,’’ said Smith, noting the rule has yet to be adopted.

To block the rule, the resolution needs to be adopted by both the Assembly and Senate. Both houses passed an identical resolution in the last session, but the DEP ignored the directive, an option not available to it if the measure is approved again. Last week, the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee approved the resolution.

Much of the farming community backed the rule proposal as eliminating onerous permitting requirements. Developers also lauded the changes, arguing the current rules, adopted in 2007, hamper economic development.

But environmentalists countered that the proposal, if unchanged, would allow development in areas where it should not occur, particularly in buffer zones and near the headwaters of waterways.

“These rules (the current regulations) are critical when it comes to protecting New Jersey’s waters, particularly drinking water,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

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