Gov. Chris Christie’s conditional veto of a bill that would have required the state to accept scientific recommendations on the safe level of a toxic chemical may represent the governor’s latest effort to loosen government control of the chemical industry, or could be a signal to the Legislature to stay out of technical matters.
The action, issued Monday, attempts to slap down a bill that would have required the Department of Environmental Protection to accept a recommendation by the Drinking Water Quality Institute — an advisory panel of scientists — on the safe level of the carcinogenic chemical 1,2,3 trichloropropane (TCP) in drinking water.
The bill would have given too much power to the DWQI, which should retain its status as purely an advisory body, the governor argued in his veto statement.
“This bill would elevate the Institute’s role from an advisory board to one with binding authority,” the statement said. “It is inappropriate to change our system of drinking water protection with regard to the consideration of one chemical, and to remove the Department’s independent review of the Institute’s recommendations.”
He said he was “confident that the Department will continue to exercise its authority in this regard in a responsible and appropriate manner.”
Christie recommended that the bill, A-3954, be amended to allow the DEP to accept or reject the DWQI’s recommendations, rather than requiring it to accept them, as described in the bill introduced on December 4 last year.
Assemblyman Herb Conaway, lead sponsor of the bill, could not be reached for comment. Conaway and his fellow Seventh District assemblyman, Troy Singleton, were among the bill’s cosponsors after the chemical was found in two wells in their Moorestown district.
Christie’s statement made no reference to the DWQI’s current work on TCP, which it is undertaking at the request of DEP Commissioner Bob Martin, and which revisits a recommendation that it made in 2009 but which was not adopted by the DEP.
At a meeting of the DWQI on October 28, its health effects subcommittee recommended tightening the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for TCP to 0.5 nanograms per liter from the 1.3 nanograms per-liter level that it recommended in 2009. The designation of an MCL allows the state to regulate a chemical.
Since 2009, the subcommittee noted, there has been research underlining the chemical’s potential to cause cancer, especially for babies and children. It said that certain tumors previously found in rats and mice that were exposed to the chemical have been found to be relevant to humans, and that children are 10 times more vulnerable to the chemical in the first two years of life.
The DWQI did not make a formal recommendation for TCP at the October meeting because it was waiting on more work by a treatment subcommittee, but is expected to issue a proposal when that panel has reported.
TCP, a manmade substance found in pesticides, degreasers, and varnish removers, has been classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a likely carcinogen but has not been given an MCL by the federal government.
DWQI chairman Dr. Keith Cooper, a Rutgers University toxicologist, said he had not seen the governor’s statement so could not comment on it, but noted the DWQI’s role is limited under the law to providing recommendations.
“The DWQI makes a recommendation to the Commissioner with supporting scientific documentation,” Cooper said in a statement. “The DWQI’s recommendation does not have the effect of a rule. The Department can then decide whether to propose an MCL as an amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act rules.”
Cooper noted that the DEP can, and has, adopted rules that differ from DWQI recommendations.
Under Cooper’s leadership, the DWQI resumed its work in April 2014 and is now meeting more regularly after a hiatus of nearly four years during which environmentalists accused it of being “shut down” by the Christie administration, which wanted to avoid further regulation of the chemical industry.
On Monday, environmentalists slammed Christie’s action as an attempt to loosen regulation and stop the Legislature from trying to protect water quality.
“We would not have needed this legislation except the Christie administration is not moving forward with protecting drinking water,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “The governor deliberately vetoed this bill as part of his attacks on environmental protections.”
Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, said Christie’s action represents a continuation of the administration’s refusal to adopt the DWQI’s recommendation in 2009.
“The Drinking Water Quality Institute made recommendations that were put on ice when the Christie administration came into office, it was one of their first actions, said O’Malley. “Now it’s nearly six years later, we’re still seeing that the governor doesn’t want to follow science and scientists on the quality of our drinking water.”
“The DEP has clearly failed to do its job, and the governor is rubber-stamping the DEP’s failure,” O’Malley said.
Brian Murray, a spokesman for Christie, did not respond to a request for comment.