With only one legislative session scheduled the rest of the summer, most of the state’s environmental community yesterday pushed the Senate to block a new rule it claims threatens water quality and increases the likelihood of flooding in New Jersey.
The groups, rallying on the steps of the State House, are hoping lawmakers will vote to rescind the regulation adopted by the Department of Environmental Protection when it reconvenes on August 1.
That day could determine the outcome of a more than year-long debate over a massive rule the agency drafted to overhaul three key permitting programs it oversees, but what critics view as the latest rollback of environmental protections by the Christie administration.
In adopting the proposal, DEP officials argued the new regulation would streamline an onerous and burdensome permitting process, eliminate duplicative and conflicting requirements while still protecting the state’s waters, and prevent flooding.
When the Legislature adopted a resolution saying the new rule is inconsistent with legislative intent of past laws, the DEP made what it termed significant changes in the proposal, while simultaneously proposing new regulations to amend the rule further. The essence of the rule was adopted by the DEP in June.
Those changes failed to quash criticism from conservationists and lawmakers, leaving its fate in the hands of the Senate if it votes to block the rule next month. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) is hoping to work out a compromise on the issue with DEP Commissioner Bob Martin to resolve the dispute, but has pledged to post the resolution (SCR-66) if no acceptable agreement is reached.
“We know we have the votes,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, referring to the resolution, which already has passed the Senate once easily. “It’s absolutely important the Legislature take action to block this rule.’’
According to Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, the agency “has been working with Senate leadership on compromises’’ to the rules, which affect the flood-hazard program, stormwater management, and coastal-zone management policies.
Senate Democrats did not respond to a call for comment.
The chief complaint about the new rule by opponents is provisions they say will erode buffer protections around New Jersey’s most pristine waters, which could lead to more development that would increase pollution and increase the risk of flooding.
“You cannot slice and dice buffers that protect our water,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, who accused Gov. Chris Christie of having an agenda to weaken the state’s environmental protections.
“This is inviting an environmental catastrophe,’’ added Elliott Ruga, policy manager at the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, which also is fighting a proposed rule it argues would increase sprawl in some of the most protected areas of the Highlands..
Debbie Mans, executive director of NY/NJ Baykeeper, said the flood-hazard rule will place more homes and businesses at risk to flooding. “We urge the Legislature to defend the law it put in place to protect our communities and reject this rule,’’ she said.