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Lawmakers Push Back on Development in Highlands, Climate Change

In two votes along mostly party lines Democrats block more septic tanks in the Highlands, and position the Garden State to rejoin RGGI

power plant smog
Credit: philly.com

In a rebuke to the Christie administration, lawmakers voted to reverse environmental policies dealing with protecting drinking water supplies in the Highlands and fighting climate change.  

In a pair of votes along party lines, the Democratic-led Senate sought to block a new rule that would open up parts of the Highlands to more development while also backing a bill that would have New Jersey join a multi-state effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants.  

Whether those actions have any teeth, however, remains to be seen. On the Highlands issue, the action by the Senate could eventually invalidate a rule allowing more septic tank systems in some of the most sensitive parts of the Highlands, the source of drinking water for more than 5 million people.  

The resolution (ACR-192), if approved by the Assembly, would give the state 30 days to withdraw the rule, amend it, or ignore it. If the latter course is chosen, the Legislature can rescind the regulation by both houses adopting the resolution again.

A move to block

In moving to block the proposal, the lawmakers are using a rare tool that allows them to revoke new rules that they regard as being inconsistent with legislative intent. In this case, the proposal to allow more development in the preservation zone of the Highlands threatens a region supplying drinking water to the majority of New Jerseyans, according to advocates.  

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the sponsor of the resolution, said the more-than-decade-old law creating the Highlands requires lawmakers to protect those water supplies. “And we’ve done a pretty good job,’’ he said.  

But Republican senators defended the new rule, saying it is a reasonable revision to septic-tank-density standards that would provide a measure of relief to residents who have been negatively impacted by the Highlands law.  

“I’m disappointed that the Legislature has acted in a way that will perpetuate misguided policies that harm families living in the Highlands,’’ said Sen. Steven Oroho (R-Sussex). He argued the new standards are based on sound science.  

The scientific process

“Why don’t we let the scientific process work instead of a political process?’’ he asked.  

Smith countered that the data used by the DEP to justify the new standards was wrong because most of the information came from areas already developed instead of more pristine forested land.  

“The whole point of this legislation is not to allow degradation of that water supply,’’ Smith said.  

The environmental community strongly backed the effort to block the rule, arguing allowing an increase in septic tanks would boost the level of nitrates polluting groundwater and other supplies.     “The Legislature is stepping up to protect the people and environment of New Jersey with this resolution to overturn these dangerous and damaging rules,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.  

In other action, the Senate approved again a bill (A-4701) directing New Jersey to rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a nine-state program that aims to curb carbon pollution from power plants. New Jersey initially was part of the effort, but Gov. Chris Christie pulled the state out of it in 2011, calling it ineffective and a tax on utility customers.  

The bill, similar to other legislation approved in the past and vetoed by the governor, passed 23-15 in a mostly party-line vote with a couple of exceptions and without debate. Christie is almost certain to veto it, and the Legislature is just as unlikely to override him.    

Combating climate change

Still, proponents of the bill, viewed by backers as crucial to the state’s own efforts to combat climate change and reduce its carbon footprint, believe it sets the agenda to be adopted quickly when a new governor takes office next January.  

“New Jersey is going to re-enter RGGI,’’ predicted Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “When the Governor vetoes RGGI, it will cement his reputation as the worst environmental governor in history.’’

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