Conservationists worry that administration is rewriting environmental rules without public comment

Some environmentalists claim DEP deliberately stashed stormwater runoff document on obscure website

In a move viewed by some as a stealth attempt to weaken the state’s rules to control stormwater runoff, the state Department of Environmental Protection is quietly soliciting comments on a controversial guidance document to be used by developers to comply with regulations.

The document was posted without notice on Sept. 13 on a website separate from the agency’s, a move conservationists argue is aimed at stifling criticism. Public comment on the draft, opposed by many environmentalists since it was first unveiled four years ago but never formally adopted, closes Oct. 6. No public hearings are scheduled.

“There’s no direct link from the main page of DEP,” said Abbey Fair, water resources project director for Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions.

Suspicious Timing

The timing drew suspicion because the Christie administration’s Red Tape Review Group earlier this year concluded the state’s stormwater rules are a hindrance to New Jersey’s economy and should be relaxed. The group recommended delegating the task to local communities, which environmentalists say are ill-prepared to administer the program.

The guidance document establishes a point system developers can use to assess whether their projects comply with the state’s stormwater management rules. Stormwater runoff is a major source of pollution of New Jersey’s waterways, including Barnegat Bay, where runoff from roads, lawns and parking lots is blamed for much of the degradation of the watershed.

But Fair and other opponents contend the point system could be easily abused by developers to win approval for major projects, even though they fail to comply with the tough stormwater management rules adopted six years ago by the DEP.

Dave Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, said he has not had a chance to review the document thoroughly. “At first blush, it appears that this should be much more publicly aired and it appears to be a weakening of the rules,” Pringle said.

DEP officials dismissed the criticism. They noted the website where the guidance document is posted is the most logical place to look for it because it was set up specifically for the regulated community and environmentalists interested in stormwater regulations.

Trying for Transparency

“If anything we’re going above and beyond what we have to do. We’re trying to be more transparent,” said Barry Chalofsky, chief of the Bureau of Nonpoint Pollution Control, who noted the agency is not required to issue public notices of technical manuals and guidance documents.

The controversy marks the second time this week the agency has come under fire for quietly moving to dramatically change its policies. Yesterday, NJ Spotlight reported that the Division of Purchase and Property issued a Request For Proposal whose overarching goal appears to be to privatize review of land-use permits issued by the agency.

Pringle noted other administrations have tried to move proposals through quietly so the agency’s defense sounded somewhat convenient. “It sure happens enough to stretch the imagination that it wasn’t done purposefully,” he said.

“It’s an ongoing assault on the environment,” said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “You’ve got a new rule, a new RFP and a new guidance document. What they are basically doing here is taking the stormwater rules and basically dismantling them. That means more pollution and more flooding.”

In with the Bad

Besides the fact that no one knew about it, the guidance document itself seem contentious.

“It is fairly easy to put bad information into this system and get a bad project approved,” Fair said. A recent study by the Delaware Riverkeeper of the stormwater management program, Fair noted, found that local governments and the state are not doing their jobs in enforcing the rules, putting New Jersey communities at risk of increased flooding, erosion and pollution.

Chalofsky said he agreed with the Red Tape group’s assertion that the agency needs to do a better job to ensure stormwater rules are properly complied with at the local level, arguing the guidance document will help achieve that goal.

“What I’m trying to do is make this system work as best as possible so that we end up with better stormwater management, not worse,” he said. “To make these broad assertions [the document is weakening the rules] is just not accurate.”

Tittel disagreed. “In urban areas, they are basically granting waivers to not follow the rules and those are the areas which suffer the most from flooding, he said.