After a lengthy hearing pitting environmentalists against the state Department of Environmental Protection, a Senate committee yesterday approved a measure that could force the agency to withdraw a proposal to streamline water regulations.
In a 3-1 vote, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee adopted a resolution (SCR-180) saying that the proposed rules violate legislative intent of past laws passed by the Legislature to protect water quality and to prevent flooding.
Critics view the 936-page rule proposal, unveiled this past June, as a rollback of some of New Jersey’s most important safeguards dealing with improving water quality, a concern because much of the state relies on surface water for drinking water.
DEP officials strongly defended the proposed rule, disputing claims that it would weaken protection for the state’s most pristine streams, arguing instead it maintains what are some of the nation’s most stringent programs enhancing water quality and avoiding flooding.
“This proposal will change nothing,’’ said Raymond Cantor, special assistant to the commissioner, referring to claims by some that the rule would eliminate protections for special areas where streams form — known as headwaters — as well as buffer zones around highly protected waterways.
“We’re not eliminating headwater protections. It will not allow more flooding,’’ Cantor said, adding that the proposed rules will not lead to more pollution entering the state’s waterways as opponents suggest.
The hearing in the Statehouse occurred on the same day the DEP proposed revamping the rules for designating areas suitable for sewer-service connections. Environmentalists were quick to criticize the rules as opening up environmentally sensitive areas, including parts of the Highlands, to development.
If approved by a simple majority of both houses of the Legislature, the resolution would mark a rare use of a constitutional provision allowing lawmakers to force an agency to withdraw a regulation, or by another vote to rescind the rule if the department fails to do so.
Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the committee and a cosponsor of the resolution, said after the hearing that many of the comments underscored how the proposed rule conflicts with legislative intent.
“We’re holding our own on water quality and water quantity,’’ Smith said of the current regulatory framework and expressing concern about whether the proposed rule is in the best interests of protecting those resources.
In a letter to the DEP commenting on the proposal, the regional office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also raised the issue of whether the proposal complied with both state and federal standard designed to protect water quality.
But Cantor said the EPA, after meeting with state officials, had essentially resolved those concerns, citing a story in the “Inside EPA,” newsletter quoting an agency official saying the EPA had “lesser concerns’’ following talking with the DEP.
Smith was unconvinced, questioning the reliability of the published report. “Why not get a letter from EPA to withdraw its letter,’’ he asked Cantor, who agreed to try and do so.
Another federal agency, FEMA, said the proposed rule could weaken current flood protections and potentially jeopardize the ability of local communities to participate in a popular flood-insurance program.
The proposal won support from builders, business groups, and others who argued it would streamline an extremely cumbersome regulatory process without relaxing water-quality standards. “In a nutshell, no standards are diminished,’’ said Michael Egenton, a senior vice president of the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce.
But much of the criticism of the rule focused on changes in buffer zones, which critics said would lead to more development in areas closer to streams and allow more removal of vegetation in those zones, which could lead to more flooding and to more pollutants entering waterways.
“There’s very little in these rules that move us forward in protecting (the state) from flooding,’’ said Mike Pisauro, policy director of the Stony Brook Watershed Association.