Acting DEP Commissioner McCabe Sails Through Confirmation Hearing

Many committee questions reflect disputes with prior administration headed by former Gov. Chris Christie

Catherine McCabe, DEP commissioner
Catherine McCabe, acting commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, sailed through a confirmation hearing yesterday after being peppered about issues left unresolved from the prior administration.

Many of the questions focused on past disputes between the Democratic-controlled Legislature and former Gov. Chris Christie over environmental policies, ranging from diverting money from pollution settlements, protecting drinking water in the New Jersey Highlands, to expanding public access to beaches.

For the most part McCabe, a former deputy regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, pledged to work with lawmakers to address those issues without delving into details or making any commitments on policy.

For instance, Sen. Bob Smith asked about a dispute over increasing septic-tank density in the Highlands, a move he and many environmentalists feared would degrade water supplies in the region. The Legislature, invoking a rarely used tool, rescinded the new regulation, but the DEP never readopted the old rule.

Working with the Legislature

McCabe said the legislative action invalidated the new rule, but noted she has asked staff to do more extensive modeling on groundwater to determine water conditions in the Highlands. “We’re happy to work with the Legislature on a path forward,’’ she told the committee.

Smith, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, also questioned the acting commissioner about whether the state would resume filing natural-resources damage suits against polluters who harm the state’s water resources and critical habitat. The state did not file a single so-called NRD lawsuit in the past eight years, he noted.

“We should get back in the NRD business,’’ Smith said. “Having the polluter pay should be the guiding principle.’’

McCabe also was urged to back a bill (S-1074) that would establish a public-trust doctrine guaranteeing public access to beaches and the waterfront, a bill that never gained final legislative approval in past sessions. Such a bill cleared a committee in February and the DEP staff is working on a response to the proposal.

Asked about the impact of rollback of environmental laws in Washington, D.C., McCabe noted New Jersey has taken steps to impose standards for new contaminants found in drinking water in the state, under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“We’ll be looking to do that at every place where the federal government lets us down,’’ McCabe said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously voted out McCabe’s nomination, which is expected to be considered by the full Senate on June 7, the first day it returns from its budget break.