Expanded Role for Industry Doesn’t Hold Water with Environmentalists

Assembly panel advances much-debated plan to revamp NJ Drinking Water Quality Institute

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Despite heated opposition from environmentalists, lawmakers yesterday handily approved a bill that opponents say may weaken drinking-water quality protections.

The Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee voted out the measure (A-2123), with only one abstention. The bill is being promoted by the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, whose lobbyist described it as part of a bipartisan effort to reform the state’s regulatory process.

Its critics, however, view it as another attempt to undercut the use of science in establishing regulations to protect the environment, this time by revamping the New Jersey Drinking Water Quality Institute. The debate over science-based regulation is often heard in Washington these days, and now it’s being argued in New Jersey.

The institute, once viewed as a national model by some, was established 30 years ago. It represented one of the first attempts in the nation to limit the amount of harmful chemicals in drinking water consumed by the public.

In recent years, however, the institute’s recommendations to toughen quality standards for drinking water have often been ignored — by both Republican and Democratic administrations.

The institute has not even met since 2010. Its former chairman resigned early that year, frustrated over the state Department of Environmental Protection’s failure to adopt recommendations to adopt tougher standards for radon, arsenic, radium and other potentially harmful contaminants in drinking water.

With that recent history, it is somewhat surprising that the institute emerged as a source of debate, but the bill sponsored by Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester), the deputy speaker of the Assembly Democratic majority, has spurred controversy nonetheless.

Burzichelli was a member of the Governor’s Red Tape Commission and has been a big proponent of eliminating burdensome regulations for businesses.

Under the bill, the institute would add three members from the commercial and industrial sectors to the nine people who currently serve, appointed by the governor, the state Senate president, and the Assembly speaker.

Opponents of the bill argue that would stack the institute with an industry bias, weakening any proposed water-quality standards.

Hal Bozarth, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, disputed that assertion.

“In no way is this any attempt to stack the deck,’’ said Bozarth, replying to a question from the member of the panel. “They’d still be in a minority.’’

Bozarth said the bill merely aims to inject some transparency into the process of establishing standards for drinking water. More importantly, he said, the bill does nothing to change any existing drinking water quality standard.

In the future, however, that may not be the case, according to opponents of the bill, who unsuccessfully lobbied the committee to kill or defer action on the measure.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, argued commercial and industrial representatives should not serve on the panel.

“There’s a direct conflict of interest when someone sitting on a body is making a decision affecting their jobs,’’ he said.

Others suggested that the move to revamp the institute’s membership is driven, in part, by the institute’s efforts to limit a contaminant used in the manufacture of Teflon nonstick cookware. The chemical, perfluoroocatanic acid (CQ), was under review by the DWQI but never made it to the DEP for a formal recommendation.

“Why should a polluter be saying what comes out of our tap,’’ said David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, and a member of the institute for six years. He lamented the institute’s current state.

“The Christie administration has gutted it,’’ Pringle told the committee. “This legislation will exacerbate that.’’

Beyond adding the three members, others said proposed changes in how the institute can make recommendations for tougher water standards will cripple its efforts even more.

Bill Wolfe, director of the New Jersey Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said the bill would also change how the institute develops risk assessments. He contends those changes could make it more difficult for the institute to adopt tough standards for various chemicals.

“It may not result in a regulatory change, but it is clearly a scientific change,’’ Wolfe told the panel.

Bozarth disputed that notion, saying the changes proposed by the bill are similar to ones already endorsed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.