State Assembly Puts DEP’s Controversial Water-Quality Proposal on Ice

Lawmakers pass resolution saying revisions proposed by state agency are contrary to legislative intent of current laws

frozen stream water
Exercising seldom-used oversight, legislators yesterday voted to block a controversial new rule proposal that critics say will undermine water-quality protections and increase flooding in the state.

By a 45-28-2 vote largely along partisan lines, the Assembly gave final approval to a resolution (SCR-180), saying that the massive rule revision proposed by the state Department of Environmental Protection last June is inconsistent with legislative intent of current laws.

The measure, approved without debate during the last day of the current session, marks the use of a legislative tool that allows lawmakers to prevent the executive branch from adopting regulations it opposes. Only one Republican, outgoing Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande (R-Monmouth), sided with Democrats in voting for the resolution.

Much of the state’s environmental community strongly opposed the 936-page rule, calling it a rollback of some of New Jersey’s most important protections dealing with pristine streams. But the DEP and various business interests touted the rule as streamlining a burdensome regulatory process that hinders economic growth.

The DEP has 30 days to respond to the resolution by changing the rules, withdrawing them, or going forward with the original proposal. If the agency goes forward with the rule, the Legislature can void the proposal by both houses adopting a resolution.

After the vote, the DEP once again defended the proposal, giving little indication it would withdraw the rule.

“We remain extremely confident that the proposed revisions of the Flood Hazard rule reduce the complexities of duplicative regulations, while maintaining, and, in some cases, raising our high standards for protection of our waterways and mitigation of flooding,’’ said Bob Considine, press director at the DEP.

That contrasts with the perspective of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region II office and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, both of which raised concerns that the proposal conflicts with federal regulatory requirements.

DEP opponents hailed yesterday’s action by the Assembly as an unusual stand by lawmakers opposing what some view as part of a concerted effort to weaken of New Jersey’s environmental safeguards.

“It’s the first time the Legislature has stood up to the governor on a major rollback of environmental protections,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, a frequent critic of the administration’s policies. “That’s what makes it, in some ways, a historic vote.’’

The most pressing concern among opponents to the rule are provisions they argue would eliminate buffer protections along streams and other waterways, a move that would degrade water quality by reducing vegetation to filter out pollutants and increase the likelihood of flooding.

“It’s a big step in overriding the Christie administration’s attempt to gut protections for stream buffers,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director Environment New Jersey. “This is the last option for the Legislature. They’ve tried legislative overrides and that hasn’t worked.’’

Even if the DEP adopts the rule and the Legislature fails to act again, the fact that both houses said the proposal is inconsistent with legislative intent will bolster a challenge if the issue ends up in court, Tittel said.

The DEP has closed the public hearing on the rule proposal, but has yet to respond to hundreds of comments it received during the process, a fact the New Jersey Farm Bureau cited in saying it had “significant concerns’’ about the resolution.

“It is alarming to us that DEP has not been afforded the opportunity by the Legislature to respond to comments received on the revised rules or make modifications where appropriate,’’ according to Ryck Suydam, president of the bureau.