Christie Quietly Signs So-Called Dirty Water Bill

Tom Johnson | January 18, 2012 | Energy & Environment
Controversial measure could allow 300,000 acres of protected land to be developed

Without any fanfare, Gov. Chris Christie yesterday signed a bill that conservationists and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned could lead to increased pollution into the state’s already degraded waterways.

The bill was one of several from the lame-duck legislature signed by the governor before noon yesterday — the deadline to act on legislation that had been approved in the prior legislative session, which ended a week ago yesterday.

His office did not announce the signing until early in the evening, burying the action on a busy day in Trenton when the governor’s State of the State message overshadowed all other events in the Statehouse.

The bill (S-3136) essentially delays adoption of new sewer service areas for two years, a postponement proponents of the measure argue will afford the state Department of Environmental Protection time to rewrite the rules that the agency has called “unworkable.”

Rushed through the lame-duck session, the bill was bitterly opposed by virtually all of the state’s major environmental groups who view the law as a major rollback of water protections afforded by adoption of new water quality management rules in 2008. Those rules essentially blocked 300,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land from being included in sewer service areas, which would make their development difficult.

Even though the bill only surfaced in mid-December, it has come under increasing scrutiny from opponents, who dubbed it “the dirty water bill,” as well as the EPA and in the press. The Asbury Park Press this week completed a three-part series on the poor quality of New Jersey’s waterways, which the article noted 90 percent of the streams and rivers in the state are impaired.

The federal environmental agency also cautioned the state against delaying the rules’ implementation. In a letter from Regional Administrator Judith Enck, the agency said, “By delaying implementation of these rules, the bill could undermine years of comprehensive planning and lead to degradation of surface and ground water.”

The Sierra Club of New Jersey said it plans to petition the federal agency to remove the state from delegation of its clean water programs and have it overseen by EPA.

“Gov. Christie is taking care of special interests before protecting water for New Jersey residents,” said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the club. “By signing this legislation, Gov. Christie is jeopardizing our water quality, the environment, and public health.”

Environmentalists had banded together to finance several studies that sought to document the effect of the bill if it was enacted. If the 300,000 acres were developed, it could lead to more than 1 million pounds of nitrogen, phosphorous, and other pollutants emptying into New Jersey’s waterways, according to environmentalists.

“The biological science is as clear as the political science and the result is dirty water and dirty politics,” said David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation. “Until the politicians become statesmen or the citizens demand it, the state of the state’s waters will be just like our politics, too dirty.”