Assembly Panel Seeks to Pull Plug on State DEP’s Water Regulations

Tom Johnson | November 17, 2015 | Energy & Environment
Committee passes resolution to prevent new rule from being adopted; approval by full Assembly would sink proposal

Legislation to prevent the adoption of a new proposal that critics say will increase pollution and lead to more flooding easily cleared an Assembly committee yesterday.

The resolution (SCR-180/ACR-249) only needs to be approved by the full Assembly to force the Department of Environmental Protection to withdraw the rule, proposed in June by officials as a way to streamline what they say is a burdensome regulatory process.

But most of the state’s environmental community and two federal agencies say the 936-page rule goes too far in revamping regulations dealing with safeguards to protect water quality and avert flooding and may be contrary to federal regulatory requirements.

The dispute revolves around a rarely used legislative tool that allows lawmakers to block adoption of a rule that is inconsistent with previous laws they have passed. If the DEP fails to withdraw the proposal, both houses could pass another resolution to rescind the rule, which has yet to be adopted by the DEP.

The action by the committee marks a significant step by lawmakers in challenging what the environmental community has long railed against — the rollback of New Jersey’s tough laws and regulations to protect the environment. Backers of the resolution hope it wins final legislative approval before the end of the lame-duck session in early January.

In a previous legislative hearing on the issue, the DEP strongly disputed claims that the rule would weaken water-quality protections and increase flooding. A top DEP official told a state Senate committee last month that the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s concerns had been resolved in a meeting between the two bureaus, only to have federal officials dismiss that account in a letter following the hearing.

The DEP was invited to yesterday’s hearing before the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee, but failed to show up. Noting the DEP’s absence, David Pringle, campaign director for Clean Water Action said the agency “knowingly misled the Senate on these issues.’’

Not only would the proposal lead to more flooding, but also it would allow more development along the state’s most pristine streams, threatening the drinking water of millions of residents, according to environmentalists.

By eliminating buffer protections, the proposal will lead to the degradation of streams and other waters, they said. “This is not streamlining,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “It’s more pollution in our streams.’’

But advocates said the current rules are so cumbersome that it prevents people like farmers from doing good things to protect water quality. “The existing rule structure is a nightmare for farmers,’’ said Ed Wengryn, of the New Jersey Farm Bureau.

George Vallone, president of the New Jersey Builders Association, called the existing rules duplicative, lauding the proposal as a common-sense approach to regulation.

Julia Somers, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, however, argued that providing flexibility for the regulatory community should be a priority of the DEP.

Just how flexible remains to be seen. “It’s kind of sad when streamlining is 900 pages long,’’ said Sara Bluhm, a vice president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, which supported the proposal.