Administration’s Rule Change Earns It Another ‘Green’ Lawsuit

Tom Johnson | February 16, 2016 | Energy & Environment
Environmentalists sue the DEP over attempts to relax restrictions on development of coastal areas, including those ravaged by Sandy

The Christie administration is being sued in court once again over its steps to streamline the state’s environmental regulations.

In a lawsuit brought in the appellate division of Superior Court in Mercer County, two environmental organizations and eight residents of Eagleswood are seeking to block new coastal rules adopted last summer by the Department of Environmental Protection.

The new regulations will allow unchecked development in vulnerable coastal communities, including areas left damaged by Hurricane Sandy, according to Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The challenge is the latest filed by conservationists and others in what they view is the Christie administration’s attempts to roll back New Jersey’s tough environmental regulations. Environment New Jersey, alone, has intervened in at least six other such court cases.

“Nearly everything the Christie administration or DEP is doing right now, our last line of defense is litigation,’’ O’Malley said. “The courts are our best option to stop this environmental overreach.’’

Among other issues, his organization has challenged actions dealing with power-plant pollution contributing to global warming; a controversial settlement with Exxon involving damage to wetlands and other natural resources from spills at refineries the company once operated; and the potential razing of 90-forested acres to install a solar facility.

In past administrations, environmental groups often sided with the DEP in defending rules aimed at safeguarding the state’s air, land, and waters. Not anymore, said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, which has been involved in even more litigation against the administration. Last month, the club and Environment New Jersey brought legal action against the state Board of Public Utilities and the Pinelands Commission over approval of a new natural gas pipeline through the protected preserve. Tittel said the club expects to also challenge the coastal rules.

“We’ve had more lawsuits now than against any other administration,’’ Tittel said. “The Christie administration has become a full-employment act for environmental attorneys.’’

The Legislature has also objected to various actions taken by the department. It adopted a resolution directing the DEP to withdraw proposed flood-hazard rules, which opponents say could increase flooding and worsen water quality in many pristine streams.

[related]In rewriting many environmental regulations, the Christie administration has defended its actions as an attempt to streamline overly complicated rules while making it easier to administer them without diminishing any protections for the environment.

The same case was echoed by the agency when it adopted rules that essentially consolidated two key programs — the coastal permit program and the coastal management regulations. The changes would streamline functions, eliminate paperwork, and be easier to understand, the department said in response to voluminous public comments criticizing the proposal.

The result would be increased compliance and continued protection of coastal resources and the health and safety of its residents, according to the department.

Critics disputed that assessment.

“With its massive rewriting of coastal-zone policies covering nearly 1,000 pages, the DEP has attempted to do through regulation what it cannot accomplish through legislation — namely, to open up the coastal area to more at-risk development where there should be less,’’ said Bill Potter, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the case. (Disclosure: Potter is an occasional columnist for NJ Spotlight.)

A recurring criticism of the new rules is that they fail to take into account the effect of sea-level rise and climate change on coastal areas prone to damage from extreme storms, such as Sandy. Instead, they promote development in the coastal zone, said Britta Wenzel, executive director of Save Barnegat Bay, another plaintiff in the lawsuit.

“There will be more development and population growth, which is the driver for most adverse impacts to land use and water quality along our coast,’’ Wenzel said. They include critical habitat loss, more polluted runoff, and adverse impacts to shellfish beds, she said.

“These rules are the biggest threat to our coast since Sandy,’’ Tittel said.