Despite strong protests from virtually all of the state’s environmental organizations, a Senate committee yesterday easily approved a bill that would delay much contested water quality management rules, a step opponents said would weaken protections that safeguard drinking water and avert sprawl.
The near unanimous approval by the Senate Economic Growth Committee, with only its chairman abstaining, appears to put the measure (S-3156) on the fast track for approval in the lame duck legislative session that ends early in January. The latest version of bill only became available for review late last week.
If approved before a new legislature is sworn in, its passage would mark the latest twist in a long effort to allow sewer service expansions in the state, an issue that is critical not only to economic development, but also to preservation of open space and farmland in a state fast losing both.
The dispute revolves around where sewer expansion should occur: in urban areas where facilities already are located to treat waste water or in less-developed areas with environmentally sensitive lands without the capacity to properly treat more sewage to protect water quality.
Under the bill, much of the state would revert to the system in place prior to 2008, when the Department of Environmental Protection adopted new water quality management rules that aimed to modernize old sewer service maps that dated back, in some cases, more than three decades. Under those new rules, up to 300,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land were removed from sewer service areas, which are locations that can be sewered and developed in high densities.
The water quality management rules were a long time coming, with federal environmental officials first ordering the updating of sewer service rules in 1996. The new rules offered protections from sewer expansions to trout streams and endangered species habitats and imposed tougher rules for developing new septic tank systems.
Since then, the rules have been challenged in the courts unsuccessfully by developers, and counties have spent millions of dollar finalizing updated sewer service areas, a process nearly complete in 10 counties. Most critics of the bill argued the state should allow that process to be finished.
The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Albert Cutinho (D-Essex) and Senator Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), would prevent implementation of these rules until 2015 creating more sprawl and water pollution and presenting a threat to the state’s drinking water supply, according to opponents.
“Having lost on the science, having lost in the courts, the developers have now come to you to get what they want,’’ said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. Instead of extending the deadline, Dillingham argued lawmakers would be better served by exercising legislative oversight of the DEP and asking why the process is taking so long
“This is a classic lame-duck process,” argued David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation. “It’s wrong.”
Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said his organization found the bill deeply troubling. “We want to encourage growth in areas where we want it and not 50 feet away from a reservoir,’’ said Tittel, referring to a project proposed near Round Valley Reservoir.
But Ray Cantor, chief adviser to DEP Commissioner Bob Martin, backed the bill, calling the 2008 rules fundamentally flawed. “It works on paper, but it doesn’t work in the real world,’’ Cantor told the committee.
Besides the agency, the bill was supported by the New Jersey Builders Association, the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, and the National Association of Industrial Office Parks, the latter two not testifying. The builders argued the bill would provide assurances for the regulated community, which is seeking to develop new projects.
But that view wasn’t shared by conservationists. “Approval of this bill would be a huge step backward and away from smart growth policies,’’ said Wilma Frey of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
The bill would give counties up to another two-and-a-half years to update plans. In the meantime, the water quality management rules existing prior to 2008 would govern where sewer extensions should be granted.
Critics of the bill were unhappy, however, because it includes a provision that requires the DEP, once a county submits an updated plan, to start accepting and reviewing site-specific changes, even before the plan has been adopted. They also opposed a provision allowing the agency to accept applications that are not compliant, provided they can demonstrate a “net’’ environmental benefit, a move some saw as another way to waive environmental regulations.
“No one knows what will qualify as a net environmental benefit, and lawsuits over this controversial provision will surely follow,’’ said Chris Sturm, senior policy advisor for New Jersey Future, a smart growth organization.