Silent Spring: Earth Day Reflects NJ’s Ups and Downs

Tom Johnson | April 23, 2012 | Energy & Environment
Environmentalists respond with fury that Christie’s silence ‘signifies nothing’

Earth Day passed, if not away, then at least quietly in New Jersey yesterday.

There were an array of small events, but not the usual big ceremonies celebrating the state’s once unyielding commitment to the environment, a record embellished by some of the nation’s toughest laws to protect the air, water and public from harmful pollution.

Gov. Chris Christie, the target of criticism from environmentalists during his tenure, failed to even acknowledge the day.

Asked whether that reflected his interest in the environment, his spokesman, Michael Drewniak, responded: “It signifies nothing and the premise of your loaded question is false and offensive.’’

David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, which endorsed Christie in his election effort, said Christie’s failure to do an Earth Day event reflects the fact that he does not have much to brag about. Responding to Drewniak’s comment, Pringle added, “It’s typical — when you can’t attack the message, you attack the messenger — whether it’s Tom Johnson or Jeff Tittel [director of the
New Jersey Sierra Club].

Perhaps fittingly, it rained all day, bringing welcome precipitation to a state parched by unusually dry weather with worries New Jersey soon could be in the midst of a new drought crisis.

At a time when environmental laws face increased scrutiny and criticism in Trenton, and, more so in Washington, the view that the public and New Jersey might be moving in that same conservative direction where environmental laws apparently have less support was disputed by some environmentalists.

“You see a lot of young people going green — recycling and bringing canvas bags to supermarkets. You see a lot of companies going green — putting solar on their roofs or grounds,’’ Tittel said.

“Now, you see government going in the wrong direction,’’ said Tittel, citing both the Christie and Obama administrations.

Nevertheless, it did not stop Democrats from hurling criticism at the Republican governor.

In a press release issued by the Democratic press office, Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), a sponsor of the bill creating protections for the New Jersey Highlands, the source of drinking water for many residents, sharply lashed out at the appointment of a new executive director at the regional agency.

“The Christie administration continues to play politics with the environment by pushing Morris County Freeholder Gene Feyl as executive director of the Highlands Council, following the unconscionable ouster of Eileen Swann, who was removed from her post, despite doing an outstanding job of implementing the Highlands Act,’’ McKeon said.

Feyl was hired as executive director of the council this past Thursday, a move that some environmentalists saw as a ramping up of what they view as a bid by the governor to repeal the Highlands Act, not by legislative means, but from the inside, according to Doug O’Malley, field director for Environment New Jersey.

“The truth is there’s not much to celebrate this Earth Day,’’ said O’Malley whose group was among 27 organizations that joined together to file a lawsuit against a controversial new rule that would allow the Department of Environmental Protection to waive environmental regulations if they were deemed unduly burdensome.

Its critics say the rule will undermine tough environmental regulations put in place over the past three decades, as well as likely leading to an avalanche of lawsuits, including one filed already.

Environmentalists also have been unhappy with the administration’s decision to pull out of an initiative, dubbed the Region (RGGI), to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a program the governor dismissed as a tax on ratepayers.

“Look at clean energy where the governor is looking to raid more than $200 million,’’ said O’Malley, referring to an effort by the administration to divert money raised from electric and gas customers on their utility bills to help balance the state budget. “Look at the continuing opposition to RGGI.’’

While environmentalists have been unhappy about the shift in the pendulum on environmental issues, business lobbyists have embraced proposed changes to environmental rules, echoing the administration’s argument it brings a common sense approach to dealing with regulations.

The Christie administration, for example, has promoted aggressive legislative effort to develop offshore wind farms off the Jersey coast. But even those efforts have been lagging, with the state slow to develop regulations that would provide a method to finance those farms, according to both environmentalists and offshore wind developers.