The federal government says a bill moving through the Legislature conflicts with clean-water laws and fails to meet standards under New Jersey’s state-administrated freshwater wetlands program.
The bill (S-1848) released by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee in a narrow 3-2 vote on Monday, would allow agricultural activity in state wetlands under certain conditions, which could make it possible to expand cranberry operations in New Jersey.
The change, if approved by the Legislature, is of serious concern to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to a letter from Chris Sebastian, of the public affairs division of the organization’s Region 2 office, which focuses on New Jersey, New York, and other areas.
An identical bill already has won approval in the state Assembly and now is up for consideration in the Senate.
“In summary, the Clean Water Act requires New Jersey’s wetlands programs [to be at] least as stringent as the federal program. We believe the provisions of Senate Bill 1848 do not meet that standard,’’ according to the letter.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed.
“This bill will destroy important environmentally sensitive lands in the Pinelands and other places,’’ he said. “This will add to more water pollution and flooding.’’
New Jersey is one of a few states to have oversight over freshwater wetlands, which help purify water supplies, provide protection from flooding, and create habitat for a wide range of species.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington), is aligned with a recommendation published by a transition committee when Gov. Chris Christie was first elected.
The bill reflects the tension between agricultural interests in the Pinelands and other locations who want to expand their operations and conservationists who want to preserve wetlands and other ecologically-sensitive areas around New Jersey.
But the EPA, in its letter, noted that the New Jersey bill would exempt work in wetlands that are not part of an established, ongoing farming operation as defined by the federal program. “We believe this would constitute a change in use which is not authorized under the federal standards,’’ the letter said.
Tittel noted that New Jersey’s laws regarding wetlands protection, signed by former Republican Gov. Tom Kean, was always stronger than federal regulations. He argued that the changes proposed by the bill could lead to the EPA resuming oversight of the state’s wetlands program.
“It’s a giveaway to agriculture,’’ Tittel said. “It changes the definition of wetlands.’’