State Agency Waives Environmental Rules to Speed Rebuilding After Storm

Environmentalists argue that rebuilding without planning invites further disasters

The state is allowing county and local governments to replace critical public infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and bulkheads, without having to secure environmental permits aimed at protecting coastal areas, flood zones, and wetlands.

The move, approved by Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin in an administrative order quietly issued Friday, drew harsh criticism from environmentalists who do not dispute that the Jersey Shore needs to be rebuilt.

However, they say it should not be achieved by putting infrastructure in the same areas likely to be damaged again in future storms, perhaps as early as today when a nor’easter is expected to hit the coast.

“Our entire state sustained unimaginable destruction as a result of Hurricane Sandy,’’ Martin said in press release issued yesterday explaining the need for the waivers.

“Restoring basic public infrastructure will be a critical first step toward the recovery of our cities and towns,’’ Martin said. “For emergency repairs, we cannot let bureaucracy get in the way. Red tape should not and will not hold up this vital work.’’

The order applies to work on public infrastructure that normally would require permits under the state’s flood hazard control rules, as well coastal and freshwater regulations, some of New Jersey’s most important environmental directives.

By most accounts, building in those areas only increases the risk of flooding in the event of major storms.

The DEP order specifies in-kind replacement, which means that the new roads, bridges, and other infrastructure must not exceed the pre-existing footprint.

Cities and towns will have six months to provide needed documentation of storm damage for retroactive DEP approval of public infrastructure projects. That documentation is key to getting federal reimbursement for the emergency work.

“It will be very important for governments to follow this process because the Federal Emergency Management Agency requires proof that state environmental approvals were obtained before releasing disaster aid,’’ Martin said.

Those provisions provided little solace to critics of the move.

“The order amounts to a total abdication of DEP’s responsibility to supervise responsible planning and environmentally sound permitting of critical public infrastructure,’’ said Bill Wolfe, director of the New Jersey chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a public watchdog group.

With the Jersey Shore bearing the brunt of destruction from Hurricane Sandy, smart growth advocates have suggested that New Jersey needs to have a vigorous debate over where and how the coastal areas are to be rebuilt, a discussion they say may avert future catastrophic losses such as those that occurred in the most recent storm. The waivers may derail that debate, they say.

Meanwhile, Wolfe urged the U.S. Environmentally Protection Agency to intervene in the waivers, saying they may represent a failure to comply with federal regulations. “You can rebuild it exactly where it was—with the same vulnerability,’’ he said. “It’s going to wash out again.’’

Other environmentalists expressed concern about giving local and county governments up to six months to do restoration work as long as they provide the needed documentation of storm damage to the DEP.

“It is one thing if it is aimed at getting Route 35 open for emergency responders,’’ said David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, referring to a major artery at the Shore. “It is a totally different thing if these barrier towns can do whatever they want for six months.’’

Pringle said there is no question that the state needs to rebuild the barrier islands, but added, “we need to do it in a better way.’’

Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the DEP, defended the agency’s actions.

“We are not giving away anything environmentally,’’ Ragonese said. “We’re going to help people get their lives back to normal.’’

Ragonese said the state has had consistent contact with several federal agencies, including the EPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA. “Cooperation has been terrific,’’ he said.

The waivers come at a time when many environmental groups are suing the DEP over a new rule adopted by the agency this past summer, which allows it to override certain environmental regulations if the rules prove an undue economic burden or other conditions.

“We need to allow for government agencies to do emergency repairs and rebuild infrastructure, but we can do it in a way that is efficient and fast without eliminating wholesale environmental rules and protections,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.