Opinion: Environment 2010 — The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Michael Catania | January 3, 2011 | Opinion
Let's celebrate the good and use the bad and the ugly to spotlight the work that needs to be done in the coming year.

You don’t need 20/20 hindsight to see that 2010 wasn’t exactly the year of the environment. That makes it all the more important to celebrate the good — yes, there were a few instances — and to remind ourselves of the bad and the ugly, which are potent indicators of how much work needs to be done (or undone) in the coming year.

There are, unfortunately, a few items that span at least two categories — the bad and the ugly. Consider the Department of Environmental Protection’s transition report, which pretty much called for the wholesale dismantling of the agency and many of its regulatory programs.

Even uglier is the fact that one the few things Governor Chris Christie and many of the Democrats in the legislature seem to have had in common this past year was an unbridled enthusiasm to roll back the significant environmental progress we have made since the first Earth Day in 1970.

But before things get too negative, let’s take a look at the environmental year in review: the good, the bad, the ugly — and a special “Be Careful What You Wish For” category.

The Good

  • The bipartisan passage of a package of landmark bills to clean up and restore Barnegat Bay, which was strongly supported by Christie, who is expected to sign it very soon.
  • Creation of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters as a way to inform the public and hold legislators and the governor accountable for their actions on significant environmental policies.
  • The handful of legislators from both parties, perhaps best personified by Senator Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), who have not completely given in to the various efforts to cut red tape, streamline government, reform regulations, privatize public functions, and otherwise defang the DEP. Particularly praiseworthy are their courageous questions as to how hobbling the agency will affect public health and the environment, as well as their dissent from some of the more obvious efforts to roll back environmental standards.
  • The Superior Court of New Jersey, the New Jersey Supreme Court, and the U.S. Supreme Court dismiss challenges to the new Highlands Regional Master Plan, reinforcing earlier court decisions upholding the Highlands Water Policy and Protection Act.
  • The Bad

  • Christie’s decision to zero out some $65 million in funding from the state’s share of regional carbon auction proceeds that was supposed to encourage the use of renewable energy and curb the emissions of greenhouse gases. Worse, New Jersey’s bad example has now led other states in the northeastern Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) to raid these funds as well.
  • Assembly Bill No. 2486, sponsored by John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester), which would prohibit the DEP and other regulatory agencies from exceeding federal minimum standards. (New Year’s resolution: Let’s see if we can work our way to the bottom of the list of environmental leaders among the 50 states.)
  • DEP Commissioner Bob Martin’s decision to close down oyster gardening programs in the Raritan Bay and to focus on preventing school kids and nonprofit environmental groups from continuing these grassroots efforts, rather than busting the folks who are actually polluting the bay.
  • The governor’s and the legislature’s refusal to even consider raising the gas tax as a way to resuscitate the bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund, get out-of-state drivers to help pay for the wear and tear on NJ highways and encourage us all to use less gasoline.
  • Efforts to spin the agreement to allow the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant to operate “only” until 2019 as the very latest environmental victory. As the oldest commercial nuclear reactor still operating in the country, Oyster Bay worried me more than any other factory or power plant when I was responsible for emergency response at the DEP.
  • The Ugly

  • Governor Christie’s obvious pandering to the extreme right wing of his party by confessing his skepticism that global warming is actually caused by people. It may play on YouTube, but it probably won’t help when we are all treading water anywhere near the Jersey shore.
  • The stealth Request for Proposals issued by the DEP, which tried to have the review of land-use permit applications taken over by consultants.
  • Christie removing all doubt about his sentiments on the Highlands Act by nominating a slate composed largely of folks who seem to believe that the legislation is unconstitutional and who want to rein in or eliminate the Highlands Council. For good measure, our governor told us that it was the Democrats who stole people’s land in the Highlands without just compensation, and that this situation won’t be rectified until voters give him Republican majorities who will repeal the Highlands Act.
  • Be Careful What You Wish for

    For many years, NJ Future, the state’s leading smart growth advocacy organization, has promoted relocating the Office of Smart Growth, which is responsible for the State Development and Redevelopment Plan, into a higher position on the organization chart. In 2010, the Christie administration finally granted that wish, placing that office under the direct control of Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, no fan of regional planning, who also doubles as Secretary of State.