Can New Commissioner Fix Department of Environmental Protection?

Tom Johnson | March 15, 2010
Acting Commissioner Bob Martin pledges to address agency's "culture"

Acting Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin told the Senate Judiciary Committee the agency is broken and needs to be fixed but backed off some of the more radical suggestions offered by the Christie administration’s transition team for restructuring it.

Martin was unanimously confirmed by the panel after an hour-long hearing in the Statehouse annex, putting him in position to be confirmed by the full Senate Monday, prior to their annual break for deliberations over the state budget.

“The DEP desperately needs leadership, management and direction,” Martin said in his opening remarks. “I will bring that to DEP. We must, and will make dramatic changes and how we do business at the DEP.”

Martin pledged to change the “culture” at the much maligned agency, which too often in the past, he said, failed to treat the public and companies interacting with it as “customers,” sometimes even failing to return phone calls. In cases where the agency does deny a permit, Martin promised at least the denial would come quickly and not lag for months.

Opening Distance from Christie Team Transition Plan

But in questioning from senators, Martin put some distance between his own views and those espoused by the Christie team’s DEP transition report. He said he advocated retaining all of the agency’s key functions at the agency, including holding onto parks and other so-called “green” side of the department.

He also said he did not want to weaken buffer zones around waterways and relinquish final permitting authority to the Pinelands Commission and Highland Council as the transition report recommended. Even with the state facing a dire fiscal situation, Martin also said he would do all he could to ensure state parks remain open this summer despite expected deep cuts in the agency’s funding.

His comments were well received by most.

“I thought he presented a very moderate agenda that was in direct contrast to some of the extreme recommendations made in the transition report,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society.

Jim Benton, executive director of the New Jersey Petroleum, also was impressed. “I heard the need for better management and I head more timely decision-making,” he said.

Steep Learning Curve Ahead for Martin

Martin, the first DEP nominee to the post without fairly extensive environmental credentials, said his 25 years of experience as a consultant in the utility and energy sectors makes him well acquainted with many environmental issues, but acknowledged he still has a “steep learning curve.” He said he would bring a pragmatic style to the commissioner’s job that will focus on “results.”

The Princeton resident declined to be pinned down on whether he supports a draft permit issued in the final days of the Corzine administration requiring cooling towers to be built at the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in Lacey Township (see Oyster Creek Plant Supporters Clash With Environmentalists). He said he wants to know more about how much the plant is affecting Barnegat Bay and would like to hear from Exelon, the owner of the plant, what are other options are there to building cooling towers. Exelon says it will close the plant down if it has to build cooling towers, which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The cooling towers would help reduce fish kills in Barnegat Bay, according to environmentalists.

Asked whether New Jersey should not exceed federal rules or standards, as suggested by an early executive order issued by the new Governor, Martin replied “In general, going forward we should be aligned with federal rules” with some exceptions.