At State DEP, Investigations Climb But Number of Enforcement Actions Falls

Is NJ environment getting better? Or is agency taking a laissez-faire attitude toward polluters?

The state has stepped up inspections for potential violations of environmental laws, but the number of enforcement actions has fallen by more than half since 2008, according to records of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

In the state’s fiscal year 2012, there were 13,555 enforcement actions taken by the agency, a steep drop-off from the 29,570 violations cited by the agency four years earlier.

Is New Jersey’s environment getting better? It depends on whom you talk to.

“The Christie administration has created a polluter’s holiday,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Even if polluters get caught, they are let off the hook and may not be penalized.’’

In the past four years, the DEP report notes that the number of compliance and enforcement investigations increased 40 percent, but Tittel, a persistent critic of the administration, noted enforcement actions dropped by almost 60 percent.

The report seems to bolster concerns from environmentalists that the Christie administration has taken a less aggressive approach to enforcing the state’s environmental laws, once considered among the most stringent in the nation.

That notion was disputed strongly by a spokesman for the DEP.

“We have a new model at the DEP,’’ said Larry Ragonese. “We’re doing things in a different way. The goal is to achieve more compliance and to resolve environmental problems quicker. It’s not the number of violations and fines that is an indicator of an improved environment.’’

Tittel argued otherwise. “How do you know that?’’ he asked. “Where is the data to support that? How do you know the problems have been corrected?’’

In one instance, however, cited in the DEP report, Calpine New Jersey Generation agreed to pay $96,000 in fines resulting from violations at its plant in Deepwater, as well as another $50,000 to build two electrification stations for trucks in South Jersey.

Ragonese said the agency is still issuing fines for violation of environmental regulations, and, if necessary taking polluters to court. Indeed, the report notes instances of both cases. In part, he said, the new strategy is being driven by having fewer people at DEP to enforce its rules.

The report suggests the reduced enforcement actions reflect “the program’s increased emphasis on compliance assistance training and outreach to the regulatory community.’’

DEP Commissioner Bob Martin, when he took office at the outset of the Christie administration, vowed to fix what he called a broken agency. He told legislators at his confirmation hearing the agency failed to treat the public and companies interacting with it as “customers.’’

“At one time, people who broke environmental laws were called violators, then they were called responsible parties, and now they are called customers,’’ Tittel said. “This shows the problem in DEP is they now believe they work for polluters and people who break environmental laws, not the public, who it is their job to protect.’’

DEP officials disagreed. “We’re targeting more selectively,’’ Ragonese said. “We’re looking at likely offenders.’’

The DEP’s budget for compliance and enforcement fell from $26 million in 2010 to $20 million in fiscal year 2011, according to Tittel. Since 2005, the total staff is down from 313 to 259, he said.

In one area, the number of enforcement actions actually increased, jumping from 818 to 1,147 in the agency’s air program Nonetheless, air pollution fines dropped from $13.8 million to $2.1 million over four years. The DEP report said the compliance rate is not “likely to be statistically significant.’’

Not only has enforcement actions declined, but so too have fines for violations of environmental regulations. According to an investigation by the Asbury Park Press last year, proposed fines covering several major programs at DEP dropped from $31.6 million in fiscal year 2007 to just $9.1 million in fiscal year 2011.