NJ Sierra Club Calls on Federal EPA to Block DEP’s New Water Rules

Tom Johnson | August 13, 2015 | Energy & Environment
Environmental group fears that pending changes will lead to more pollution and increased flooding in state’s streams

Environmentalists are asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to block New Jersey from adopting rules governing flood-hazard areas. They argue that implementing the standards would lead to more pollution in streams and more flooding.

In a letter to the EPA’s Region II administrator, the New Jersey Sierra Club said the pending rules fail to comply with provisions of several federal programs and laws, including the Clean Water Act.

The rules were proposed by the state Department of Environmental Protection in June and could be put in place by the end of the year, unless the EPA intervenes, environmentalists claim.

In proposing the changes to the flood-hazard program, the DEP said the rules will reduce complexity, correct conflicting regulations, and streamline the permitting process for project applicants.

But critics argued that the proposal would breach the 300-foot buffers around the state’s high-quality streams, opening them to development, a prospect that would affect water quality and increase the prospect of flooding.

“By eliminating buffers, we are going to allow more pollution in our streams,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

New Jersey has long had a difficult time cleaning up its waterways, with 90 percent failing to meet one or more water quality standards, according to Michael Pisauro, policy director of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association. “The DEP is walking away from water protections,’’ he said.

What irks the environmental groups is that the current rules, adopted in 2006, created new provisions to protect water quality in the flood-hazard regulations, as well as the coastal and stormwater programs. Those rules were challenged by builders, but upheld in court.

Tittel called the buffer provisions the most important advance in streams and buffers along waterways in the state.

The DEP did not respond to questions about the EPA letter or the allegations raised by the critics of the pending rule.

In announcing the rule, the DEP touted the proposal as part of the Christie administration’s ongoing effort “to add commonsense and predictability to overly burdensome state rules and regulations.

In its letter to the EPA, the Sierra Club argued that the new rules violate a memorandum of agreement between the federal agency and the DEP regarding the Clean Water Act.

“Any reduction in buffers or new loopholes to allow development will violate those agreements,’’ the letter said. “We need the EPA to sign off on this rule change since it’s substantial and we believe does not comply with all the federal regulations currently in place.’’

“These rules undid years of progress,’’ added Pisauro, referring to the changes in the programs.

Tittel agreed. “We should be adding protections to safeguard people and property; instead, we are weakening them, putting more people and property in harm’s way,’’ he said. “That is why we are urging the EPA to intervene, evaluate, and halt these irresponsible rules.’’

If the rules are adopted in their current form, Tittel said the Sierra Club will challenge them in court.