State DEP Rapped for Diverting Dioxin Cleanup Cash to General Fund

Governor's budget plan calls for continued reallocation of environmental funds, but there's not much money left to divert

When the Christie administration looks to plug an $800 million shortfall in the current state budget with less than two months to do so, it probably will find few opportunities in the state’s environmental programs — for a change.

Most of those programs may be tapped out. The budget proposal before the Legislature already diverts close to $200 million from various environmental and clean-energy initiatives, That includes diverting $147.5 million earmarked for the cleanup of dioxin pollution in the Passaic River to the general fund — even before the latest shortfall was announced last week.

The issue sparked some heated debate last week when state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin appeared before the Assembly Budget committee. Of particular concern: Reallocating the settlement with polluters to deal with the dioxin problems in the Passaic River.

In two separate court settlements reached this past December, the administration won $165.4 million from the parties responsible for polluting the river, a case that could eventually amount to one of the largest cleanups ever undertaken.

“You didn’t go after them to balance the books,’’ said Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union), questioned Martin, referring to the diversion of the money back into general fund. By some estimates, the projected costs of cleaning up dioxin in the Passaic River could run from $400 million to $500 million; the undertaking will take many years to complete

Martin defended the budgetary move. “We’re not diverting funds at all; this is to cover previous (incurred) costs,’’ he told the committee.

Cryan disagreed. “I think it’s completely wrong to cover the shortfall,’’ he replied.

It is not anything new. For much of his administration, Christie has diverted funds from environmental and clean-energy programs to plug holes in the state budget. The clean-energy reallocations, which total nearly $1 billion, shift money paid by utility customers on their gas and electric bills to the state budget.

The administration’s budget plan aims to shift another $3.7 million from the Clean Energy Fund to support the DEP’s Office of Sustainability and Green Energy, as well as transfer $6.2 million from the state recycling fund to the general fund, although that is a drop from the $15.4 million diverted in the current budget, according to an analysis by the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services.

Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union)
Beyond that, the proposed budget allocates up to $18 million from a fund set aside to clean up hazardous spills.

According to the department, there will be no decrease in support for county and municipal recycling grant programs, which are projected to total $21.5 million in fiscal year 2015.

The budget plan also sought to transfer $5 million from a fund aimed at ensuring old garbage dumps are properly closed. But the OLS noted that since there are not enough funds to cover that transfer, it will not take place under the current budget proposal. The administration diverted $10 million from the fund in fiscal year 2013, according to the OLS.

“There’s no blood left in the stone,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, referring to the frequent diversions from environmental and clean-energy programs. “It is a budget that is part of the ongoing dismantling of environmental programs by the Christie administration.’’

In some cases, however, the DEP will receive an infusion of new funding from the federal government, including $229.3 million in Hurricane Sandy funding to finance upgrades to wastewater treatment plants and water supply facilities. Martin said the money could finance up to $1.3 billion of upgrades to those facilities when leveraged with other funds from the federal government and the state.

The latest project shortfall, however, is the caused by over-optimistic revenue projections by the Christie administration, which have repeatedly fallen short of estimates by the State Treasurer. Earlier this year, the administration had to scramble to plug a $694 million shortfall caused by a slowdown in revenues expected by the state.