Op-Ed: NJ Cannot Raid Environmental Funds to Balance State Budget

Eric Stiles | December 7, 2016 | Opinion
Voter-approved constitutional amendments are now the only way to protect funds for their intended purposes

Eric Stiles
New Jersey’s natural resources damage (NRD) program is an incredibly important and necessary initiative rising from the state’s history of incremental spills and discharges, as well as historic industrialization. 

NRD requires polluters to go beyond the mandated cleanup and pay damages for restoration and compensation for the public loss of use of natural resources, including habitat, species, water, and land. Regardless of income, race, or religion, everyone has the fundamental human right to clean air and water and access to healthy wildlife and habitat. 

New Jersey Audubon has worked extensively to protect habitats across the state and has been an advocate and responder in protecting wildlife, wetlands, and other natural resources from oil spills among other threats. New Jersey Audubon supports this program because everyone should be able to use our public resources, no matter if they are private individuals or companies.

But using our natural resources can’t be done to the detriment of others. When that happens, compensation is required.

We believe that funds from this program must be used to restore natural resources where damage has been done. Money should flow to the same community where pollution took place, or through another nexus, such as a connected watershed, in lands that protect a water source or by identifying a resource used by the impacted community.

This money must not be raided, as has happened to this and other programs to balance the state budget. The sad trend of raiding funds dates back to the 1980 court decision of Camden v. Byrne, which allowed appropriations bills to override all other statutes, permitting this use of funds previously dedicated for one purpose to be used for another. Voter-approved constitutional amendments are now the only way to protect funds for their intended purposes.

That is why New Jersey Audubon strongly supports SCR-39, a resolution now in the state Legislature, that ensures the money is protected to help affected communities who have suffered long enough.

New Jersey Audubon has extensive experience in dealing with pollution and spills that impact our native species, habitat, and water. NJA was involved in cleanup and recovery efforts after both the 1996 Anitra Oil Spill and the 2005 Athos Spill.

Following the Athos Spill, we mobilized staff and volunteers with the state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Coast Guard for on-site assessment of birds and wetlands. As a result of this and other research work, we have significant experience with the impact of various spills and discharges on birds, wetlands, and other wildlife and habitats.

We actively supported the passage of New Jersey’s Spill Act to safeguard against spill impacts on habitats and species, particularly threatened and endangered species. We also proposed important reforms to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 to limit oil-spill risks in the future.

We recognize the critical importance of natural-resources damages to go beyond paying to clean up pollution and to compensate the public for their loss of our valuable natural resources including wildlife, habitat, and water. And it is also why we so strongly support this resolution, ensuring that funding for environmental restoration is preserved, protected from raids, and properly allocated.

New Jersey Audubon calls on the Assembly and Senate to quickly post SCR-39 to protect these funds from future raids and ensure communities are fairly compensated for impacts suffered from pollution.