Senate Overrides DEP Rules Seen as Hurting Water Quality, Increasing Flooding

Bipartisan vote confirms lawmakers agree proposal clashes with legislative intent of earlier environmental laws

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak
In a bipartisan action yesterday, the Senate voted to override a contentious new rule proposed by the state Department of Environmental Protection that is viewed by critics as impairing New Jersey’s water quality and increasing flooding.

By a 26-12 margin, a resolution, SCR-180, said the complex rule, proposed this past June, is inconsistent with legislative intent of prior environmental laws approved by the Legislature.

The bill passed without any debate, with three Republican senators backing the measure, which supporters hope will pass the Assembly when it resumes sessions after the November election. If it does, it would force the department to withdraw the regulation, which was proposed this past June. Failing that, both houses could pass another measure to rescind the rule.

The approval came shortly after the Senate voted to override a veto of a gun control bill that deals with someone documented with mental illness seeking a gun permit –the first time lawmakers have successfully challenged a veto by Gov. Chris Christie.

Environmentalists, who have been strongly critical of the proposal, hailed passage of the DEP resolution.

“The Legislature is finally standing up to the Christie administration’s rollback of environmental programs,’’ said Doug O’Malley, executive director of Environment New Jersey. ‘’

“For us, it’s an important first step in overturning this rule,’’ added Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

The DEP strongly defended the massive 936-page water rule during a legislative hearing earlier in the week, saying it would not weaken measures intended to protect the state’s waterways or prevent flooding. Instead, officials said it was designed to streamline a regulatory process developers describe as cumbersome and confusing.

But opponents argued that the rule, if adopted, will strip away existing protections around the state’s most sensitive streams, allowing for more development and removal of nearby vegetation, which would increase flooding.

“These rules are dangerous and damaging to the environment and even EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and FEMA have sent letters in opposition to them,’’ Tittel said. Both letters question whether the rule proposal conflicts with federal regulations.

At the hearing earlier this week, Raymond Cantor, chief advisor to the commissioner, said after meeting with DEP on the proposal, the state had essentially resolved those concerns.

But a letter from the Region II EPA office yesterday suggested otherwise. “The proposed regulations have not changed,’’ wrote Joan Leary Matthews, director of the Clean Water Division. “EPA continues to have concerns as identified in our previous letter.’’

In a statement released by the Senate Democrats, Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), the sponsor of the resolution, also faulted the proposal.

“The Christie administration’s proposed regulation to permit development in close proximity to protected streams and waterways will increase flooding in dozens of communities throughout the state and degrade water quality,’’ he said.