DEP, Lawmakers Clash Over Development in the Highlands

Assembly votes to stop state agency from boosting number of septic tanks in pristine preserve, source of drinking water for millions in NJ

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Upset with a new rule they say threatens water supplies from the Highlands, lawmakers gave final approval yesterday to a measure that could block its implementation by the Christie administration.

By a 52-24 vote, the Assembly moved to bar the state Department of Environmental Protection from changing regulations to allow more development in the region, the source of drinking water for six million residents.

The vote sets up another confrontation between Democratic lawmakers and the administration over the latter’s efforts to overhaul the state’s environmental regulations, a continuing dispute during the past seven years.

The resolution stipulates that the new rule, just recently adopted by the DEP, is inconsistent with legislative intent, a rarely used tool that allows lawmakers to block actions by the executive branch. The resolution (ACR-192) was approved without debate.

The DEP has 30 days to either amend or withdraw the regulation, widely opposed by the state’s environmental groups. If no action is taken, the Legislature can rescind the rule by approving the resolution again.

The Highlands Act, enacted in 2004, aimed to protect 860,000 aces of forested hills, lakes, and land that serves as the source of drinking water to more than half of the state.

The rule adopted by the DEP would open up parts of the preserve’s more ecologically sensitive land to development by increasing the density of septic tanks allowed in those areas. Septic systems can leak nitrates, a major source of groundwater pollution.

“The new standards have the potential to add up to 12 percent more septic systems in the Highlands region, which would have an adverse impact on drinking water and run starkly counter to the original intent of the Highlands Act,’’ said Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), a sponsor of the resolution.

As it has in the past, the DEP defended the new rule. “We remain confident in the peer-reviewed science and updated standards, which are based on more than 19,000 data points,’’ said Bob Considine, a spokesman for the agency.

“These standards maintain protection over the water supply, while creating reasonable additional opportunities for economic growth,’’ he added. “Those who voted in favor of the resolution have no science to speak of.’’

But Elliot Ruga, policy director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, disagreed. “This is an administrative attempt to weaken probably the most vital water resource in New Jersey. We should be doing everything to protect it, not degrade it,’’ he said.

This marks the second occasion when the Legislature has sought to overturn a rule adopted by the DEP dealing with water-quality protections. Lawmakers in one house voted to rescind a controversial flood-hazard/water-quality regulation adopted by the DEP last year that critics argued would increase flooding and pollution in the state’s waterways.

The Highlands rule appears at least as controversial.

“With these rules, the DEP has targeted the most environmentally sensitive areas of the Highlands that will allow development to destroy these pristine areas,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This is the area that contains the mountains above our reservoirs and water-supply intakes.’’