NJ Environmental Federation and Christie — A Relationship on the Rocks

Christie earns a "D" from disenfranchised environmental group, citing spotty record -- at best

The honeymoon is over between Gov. Chris Christie and the New Jersey Environmental Federation.

The federation, one of the largest and most visible environmental organizations, surprised, and in some cases disappointed, other conservation groups when it endorsed the GOP gubernatorial nominee in the 2009 general election.

It has remained silent, for the most part, as the Republican administration has rolled back numerous initiatives, a stance former allies said emboldened the governor to be even more aggressive in weakening efforts to fight global climate change, protection of the New Jersey Highlands, and clean water.

Not anymore.

In a Statehouse press conference, the federation yesterday said the governor gets a “D” on his environmental record, saying on the most important issues facing the state, Christie performed poorly or earned failing marks.

Christie administration officials disputed that view. “If you look at the record, it is long and good with real environmental accomplishments,” said Larry Ragonese, a spokesman with the state Department of Environmental Protection, citing New Jersey’s efforts to develop solar energy, offshore wind farms, and close down polluting coal plants in Pennsylvania.

Sharon Finlayson, chair of the federation’s Vote Environment Committee, said the governor appeared relatively on course coming out of the gate, an assertion other environmentalists would probably dispute, citing his red tape commission to make rules less onerous to businesses.

“Unfortunately after two-and-half years, there has been a continual and steady decline in his environmental policy making,” she said. “Coincidental or not, his environmental platform and commitments began to evaporate as his national stardom rose.”

Ragonese disagreed. “That’s such a cliché. It’s just happy talk,” he said. “We give the environmental groups an ‘F’ for not understanding how much we have accomplished in the last three years.”

The breakup has been a long time coming. Following the election, the federation said it worked with the administration and gave it the benefit of the doubt on a great deal.

“For some time now, the governor has been distant and unresponsive,” said Ben Forest, another member of the Vote Environment Committee of the federation. “His policies reflect an anti-environmental point-of-view.”

“We’ve been banging our heads against the wall for two-and-a-half years,” agreed David Pringle, campaign director of the federation.

Other environmentalists had little sympathy.

“For more than two years, they have been, if not firmly enabling these policies, they were quietly supporting them and undermining critics in other cases,” said Bill Wolfe, executive director of New Jersey chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed. “By not standing up sooner, it emboldened Christie to do more bad stuff,” said Tittel, who questioned how the federation only gave the governor an overall “D” grade.

“Where do you get to a ‘D’ when there’s 100 bad things and only three good things,” he questioned.

There was little disagreement among the environmentalists of why Christie scored badly.

The federation accused the governor of breaking a promise to strengthen a program to protect the state’s most pristine streams and rivers; diverted nearly $680 million in clean energy funds to balance state budgets; and broke a commitment to reduce fish kills caused by the Salem nuclear power plants.

Even where the governor addressed the federation’s concerns, such as Barnegat Bay, an estuary many view in danger of dying, it said the governor has failed to stop the biggest cause of the bay’s decline — overdevelopment.