Conservationists Petition State DEP for Tighter Rules to Curb Runoff

Contaminated stormwater is largest contributor to water pollution in New Jersey

Maya van Rossum, Delaware Riverkeeper: Amendment "will provide a backstop for citizens..."
A coalition of environmental organizations yesterday urged the state to curb runoff from storms, the largest source of water pollution in New Jersey — and a longstanding problem that makes most of the state’s waterways unsuitable for swimming or fishing.

In a petition filed with the state Department of Environmental Protection], the nine groups call on the agency to update the nearly five-year-old permits governing runoff from municipal storm sewer systems, highways, and other developed sites where much of the pollution occurs.

Runoff, which contains pollutants such as animal waste, fertilizers, oil and petroleum products, has long been recognized as one of the state’s most intractable problems in cleaning up its waterways. But the cost of dealing with the problem — projected to run into billions of dollars — has led various administrations to shun the issue.

In the meantime, the problem has only gotten worse, at least according to Larry Levine, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the organizations filing the petition with the DEP.

“As of 2010, New Jersey has identified an astounding 14,000 miles of rivers; more than 28,000 acres of lakes, reservoirs and ponds; nearly 200 square miles of ocean and near-coastal waters where polluted runoff made the water unsafe for fishing, swimming, boating, drinking or other uses protected by state and federal law,’’ Levine said in a blog post about the petition.

“It’s the number one source of pollution in tens of thousands of stream miles that are polluted with storm water,’’ Levine told NJ Spotlight in an interview.

In the petition, the groups seek stronger requirements to capture polluted runoff — using so-called green infrastructure, such as rain gardens, roadside plantings, and
permeable pavement — to prevent pollution from washing into rivers, streams, lakes and coastal waters.

The petition comes at a time when a series of statewide stormwater permits adopted in 2009 by the New Jersey DEP are scheduled to expire at the end of this month. The groups contended in the petition that the state agency has failed to follow the lead of other states, which have taken innovative steps to reduce runoff from storms.

“It’s something other states are addressing more proactively,’’ Levine said. “It’s a long-term problem, but this is the time to act on it.’’

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, said the agency just received the groups’ input and will provide them with a detailed response. “The DEP has long recognized that stormwater runoff has a significant impact on water quality,’’ he said. “This is especially important in New Jersey because we are so densely populated.’’

He said the Christie administration continues to work on comprehensive initiatives to address stormwater and other non-point pollution (problems not caused by big facilities such as wastewater treatment plants and manufacturing operations).

“These are complex initiatives that take time, patience, and perhaps the most important, commitment by residents to understand the impacts their decisions and practices at home have on our rivers, lakes, and bays,’’ Hajna said.

Others disagreed.

“New Jersey’s stormwater rules are weak and ineffective at preventing contamination from getting into our waterways, and all New Jersey residents end up paying the price in terms of degraded water quality, more localized flooding, erosion, algal booms, and reduced recreational opportunities,’’ said Maya van Rossum, Delaware Riverkeeper, and a party to the petition.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, stormwater permits are to be renewed every five years to incorporate new technology and best practices. “By updating the permits, New Jersey will be taking strong steps to improve our water quality that now violates clean-water act standards,’’ said Michael Pisauro Jr., an attorney for the New Jersey Environmental Lobby, another one of the petitioners.