For the second time in a lame-duck session in just two years, state lawmakers yesterday approved a bill that would delay controversial water-quality rules, a move critics say may imperil drinking water and spur sprawl in environmentally sensitive areas.
At the end of a hearing before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, the panel overwhelmingly voted out a bill (S-3107) to extend for another two years adoption of water-quality management regulations, a step that could allow easier expansion of sewer lines and septic systems in the state, according to critics.
The issue has long been one of the more contentious facing the state. It revolves around where sewer expansion and other developments should be allowed in New Jersey, a question that weighs the benefits of economic development against the need to preserve open space and farmland in a state fast losing both.
“If we don’t act, every building permit out there is in jeopardy,’’ said Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the chairman of the committee and the sponsor of the bill. He said the process of mapping what areas should be allowed for sewer extensions is working, but conceded it is taking longer than expected, primarily because counties lack the resources and expertise to get it done.
“The good new is we’re moving forward,’’ said Sarlo, adding that the latest two-year extension (the first was granted in the 2011 legislative session) would afford enough time for the state’s 21 counties to win approval for their water-quality management plants. So far, all but Cumberland County has submitted such a plan, but the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has approved plans for 10 counties, Sarlo noted.
Environmentalists disputed his views, arguing the latest extension constituted a weakening of New Jersey’s once-strong regulations governing the protection of open space and drinking water.
“With this legislation, we see 20 years of progress on clean water flushed down the toilet’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This legislation is the biggest attack on clean water in our state in almost two decades.’’
Tittle particularly criticized a provision in the bill that would allow septic systems to discharge 50,000 gallons into groundwater — up from the previous limit of 20,000 gallons — a step he said would open up rural areas and the Pinelands for development.
Dave Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, agreed, calling the bill the sixth major weakening of the state’s water protection laws in the past three years. He claimed the bill would lead to more flooding and depletion of safe drinking water supplies.
The water quality management rules have been a long time in coming, with federal environmental officials first ordering the updating of sewer service rules — some more than three decades old — in 1996. In 2008, the DEP adopted new regulations, which removed up to 300,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land from new sewer service areas.
Those rules were challenged in the courts unsuccessfully by developers, who have now taken their cause to the Legislature, where there efforts have proved more fruitful.
The DEP did not offer any comments on the bill yesterday before the Senate committee, but in the past has described the 2008 regulations as unworkable and fundamentally flawed.
As in the past, the current bill extending the deadline on new water management quality rules is being fast tracked. The bill was introduced on Decmeber 12, 2013, and immediately referred to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee without a hearing before the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, which typically would hear such bills.
“It shouldn’t be happening in a week at the end of a lame-duck session,’’ Pringle said.