Proposed DEP Rule Changes Still Catching Flak, This Time from Lawmakers

Tom Johnson | September 25, 2015 | Energy & Environment
If new resolution garners simple majority in Assembly and Senate, state environmental agency could be forced to withdraw proposed regulations

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak
The Legislature will try to block the Christie administration from adopting new rules that critics claim will increase water pollution and make New Jersey more vulnerable to flooding.

The rule proposal, unveiled by the state Department of Environmental Protection this past June, is intended to streamline permit reviews in three key areas — flood hazards, water quality, and coastal planning.

To opponents, however, the rules would remove safeguards in place to reduce the risk of flooding and improve water quality, in a state where most streams fail to comply with federal clean-water standards.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, FEMA, and the New Jersey State League of Municipalities echoed many of those concerns in comments submitted to the DEP in response to the rule proposal. In general, they said the changes, if adopted, would fail to comply with various federal standards.

“These so-called rule changes would eliminate important protections for our waterways, degrading water quality, endangering fish habitats, and increase the risk of flooding,’’ said Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), who introduced the resolution yesterday in the Senate.

[related]The resolution, if approved by the Senate and Assembly by simple majority votes, could force the DEP to withdraw the proposal. Backers of the resolution, including many environmental groups, hope merely the intervention of the Legislature will force the state agency to reconsider the issue.

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, declined to comment on the proposal resolution, but defended the proposed changes in the rules.

“We are confident that we crafted a rule proposal providing environmental protections while providing commonsense solutions,’’ Hajna said. “We don’t believe this rule proposal will have any negative impact on our waterways.’’

The proposal mirrors the goals of other changes in regulations enacted during the Christie administration, which are intended to eliminate overly burdensome and conflicting rules.

Environmentalists have a different perspective, saying the latest proposal is part of a continuing effort to roll back some of the state’s most critical environmental protections.

“This turns 15 years of environmental protections on its head,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), a co-sponsor of the resolution and chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, agreed. “The proposed rules appear to reverse the stewardship of former environmental commissioners Brad Campbell and Lisa Jackson,’’ he said.

Among the changes most objectionable to opponents are provisions dealing with headwater protections and buffer areas around streams, which they said protect waterways from pollutants and people from flooding.

“The most important advance we’ve made in protecting our streams was to add buffers along our waterways,’’ Tittel said.

Hajna said the changes will not increase the risk of flooding because the department is not changing any of its rules in the flood-hazard areas.

Some challenged that assertion, especially since the state has had 22 major floods in recent years. “This will lead to more flooding,’’ said Ed Potosnak of the League of Conservation Voters.

Lesniak also predicted the rule changes could lead to sprawl by opening up additional areas to development.