Murphy Officials Undo Christie’s Septic-Tank Density Rule for Highlands

Tom Johnson | December 10, 2018 | Energy & Environment
Activists, who had strongly resisted former governor’s easing of environmental standards, welcome move but wonder about provision for further evaluation

Credit: NJDEP
It took nearly a year, but the state Department of Environmental Protection has revoked a Christie administration rule that critics argued would degrade water quality in the Highlands, the source of drinking water for half of New Jersey.

In a press release issued Friday, the DEP said it is rescinding a rule governing the density of septic tanks in the most protected areas of the Highlands, a sprawling 860,000 area of forested land, lakes and farmland in central and northern New Jersey.

The rule, perhaps the most bitterly resisted move by the former governor to roll back environmental standards in his eight years in office, was blocked last January by the Legislature, using a rarely-invoked tool to invalidate regulations inconsistent with legislative intent, in this case the law protecting the Highlands.

But then DEP Commissioner Bob Martin refused to rescind the rule, saying lawmakers acted outside their constitutional authority to abolish the regulation. The regulation stayed on the books — until now.

Last May, DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe told the Senate budget panel the agency was looking at the data the prior administration used to justify expanding development in the Highlands and was willing to work with lawmakers on a compromise.

Pre-Christie standards to apply

Her decision to revoke the rule comes at a time when the Murphy administration has come under increasing criticism from segments of the environmental community, in part over its failure to reverse some policies put in place by former Gov. Chris Christie.

“The Highlands Region is a vital source of drinking water for more than half of New Jersey’s families,’’ McCabe said in her announcement, “and protecting New Jersey’s water is a key priority for DEP.’’

The septic density rules will now reflect standards in place before the Christie-administration rule was adopted. It limits one septic system per 88 acres, instead of 23 acres, in forested lots, and one septic system for 25 acres on non-forested land, instead of 8 acres.

However, the agency will further evaluate the data and reconsider what septic tank density standards are most appropriate, based on the law and sound science.

Are they still looking for a compromise?

That prospect dampened some of the enthusiasm Highlands advocates had for the DEP announcement.

“We welcome any reconsideration of the data, if it is well guided by the legislative intent of the Highlands Act and relies on appropriate and verifiable data sources, because we are confident the conclusions will be the same, if not more restrictive, as embodied in the original rule,’’ said Elliott Ruga, policy director for the New Jersey Highlands Coalition.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed. “If they’re still looking for a compromise, we’re still going to fight,’’ he said. “The legislation was very clear — they must maintain water quality.’’

Still, Ruga noted the revocation of the Christie regulation is significant because it was done before any new permits allowing for more expansive development were issued under the weaker standards.

Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, called the reversal “a long time coming to turn the page from the Christie era … and the final nail in his attempt to usurp legislative intent’’ of the 2004 law.