Showdown over Proposed Changes to DEP Water Rules Moves Closer

Tom Johnson | March 4, 2016 | Energy & Environment
Rarely used legislative override could prevent rules from being adopted or force DEP to rescind them

Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex)
In an unusual rebuke to the Christie administration, lawmakers moved a step closer to revoking a proposed rule that critics say will degrade New Jersey’s water and increase flooding.

The Democratic-controlled Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee yesterday voted along party lines to order the state Department of Environmental Protection to withdraw a yet-to-be adopted rule proposal that would overhaul flood-hazard, stormwater, and coastal-management regulations it proposed last summer.

The massive revamping of those rules is strongly backed by builders, business interests, and many in the farming community and just as staunchly opposed by environmentalists. To backers, the rules would eliminate redundancy and streamline and simplify complex rules that stifle economic growth, a priority of the DEP since the start of this administration.

“The amendments proposed by DEP threaten the very waters and natural habitats that these regulations are supposed to protect,’’ said Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), the sponsor of the resolution (ACR-160).

If the resolution is passed by the Legislature, it would prevent the DEP from adopting the amended rules, or if adopted, to rescind them as against legislative intent. The override provision is a legislative tool rarely used by that body to challenges actions by the executive branch.

An identical resolution passed both houses in the last legislative session, but the DEP did not take any action on it. If the resolution wins approval again from both houses, it would revoke the rules, if adopted.

[related]An identical resolution is scheduled to be considered by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee on Monday, giving backers hope that the Legislature may approve the measure before it recesses for budget deliberations later this spring.

“Stopping these dangerous rules is probably the most important thing this Legislature can do to do when it comes to clean water,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

But supporters of the rule, encompassed in a 936-page proposal, urged lawmakers to let the administrative process play out since the DEP has not yet adopted the proposal. “Each chamber, at least, should have the patience to see what DEP promulgates,’’ said Anthony Pizzutillo, representing commercial real estate developers.

Bob Considine, a spokesman for the DEP, said the agency is still reviewing comment submitted to it, “but ultimately there’ll be some change to the rule upon adoption based on issues raised during the comment period.’’

To environmentalists, however, they fear the changes and current proposal will weaken 25 years of hard-fought protections aimed at protecting the state’s waters and designed to avert flooding, a recurring major problem in recent years during major storms like Hurricane Sandy.

Probably the most pressing concern among opponents to the rule is provisions they argue would eliminate buffer protections along streams and other waterways, steps that would lead to more pollution and increase the likelihood of flooding.

Supporters of the rule disputed that view. “What DEP has done is balance environmental protection with economic growth,’’ said Dwight Pittenger, a vice president of the New Jersey Builders Association.