No Agreement on DEP’s New Office of Dispute Resolution

Some environmentalists worry that new office will repeat failings of Whitman-era precursor

The Christie administration yesterday said it was resurrecting the Office of Dispute Resolution, once a much criticized section of the Department of Environmental Protection that environmentalists viewed as weakening the enforcement of pollution laws.

In a press release announcing the creation of the office and touting it as part of its commitment to customer service, the department said dispute resolution will help find common ground between the DEP and the regulated community. That will prevent differences from becoming full-blown legal battles.

“The Office of Dispute Resolution will play a key role in achieving our goal of breaking down the barriers that have often existed between the DEP and businesses, individuals and local governments,” Commissioner Bob Martin said. “This office will head off potentially costly and lengthy litigation that may not have been needed had both sides simply met first to work out their differences. In finding common ground, however, we will not compromise protection of the environment.”

Under Fire

Originally established by former Gov. Christie Whitman, the office came under fire from environmentalists because enforcement action went down by 80 percent. Penalties for violations of environmental laws and regulations were often reduced by two-thirds or as much by three quarters, according to Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

“This was considered one of the biggest abuses at DEP in the Whitman years, allowing companies that deliberately violated environmental law to get away with it. We believe the same thing will happen yet again, putting the environment and public health and safety at risk,” Tittel said.

But Hal Bozarth, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, welcomed the move, saying it is part of an array of tools being developed by the new administration to try and solve problems at the DEP “negatively impacting economic development in the state.”

A Common Practice

Dispute resolution is a common practice used in both the private and the public sectors to mediate solutions to potentially difficult disagreements. While the DEP’s new Office of Dispute Resolution will not be able to mediate every type of case, it will be able to help in many areas, including water and land use permit and compliance issues, penalty assessments and alleged failures to comply with permit conditions.

The office cannot mediate challenges to DEP rules, regulations or policies, nor can it mediate disputes between private parties.

Customer Service

The creation of this office is the latest in a series of moves launched by Martin to transform the DEP into an agency that works with the public that it serves by emphasizing customer service and prompt response, which he often has said involves changing the culture of the department.

“For too long, environmental protection has been viewed as a roadblock to economic growth,” Martin said. “All of these steps will allow strong environmental protection to serve as a catalyst for growth. The creation of the Office of Dispute Resolution is an important step in that direction.”

The move, however, drew skepticism from some. “We were not a big fan of the office when it was done under Whitman,” noted David Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation. The organization endorsed Christie in last fall’s election and has been much more muted in its criticism of the administration’s environmental moves than Tittel.

“Time will tell whether it results in less environmental protection and safeguards rather than more environmental protections,” Pringle said. “They’ve assured us it will be the latter, but past experience tells us it will be the former.’’

Asked if the prior office helped his clients, Bozarth replied, “To be honest, no. But that has nothing to do with this. They have different people with a different agenda. This administration is in control of the department, unlike the previous time.’’

Still, Bozarth conceded the office will likely be most useful to smaller businesses and persons who get enmeshed in the maze of bureaucratic regulations administered by the agency. “This can help the little guy who has a tideland permit or a wetlands permit in his backyard,” he said.