Critics Up in Arms as DEP Permits Sewage Treatment Plant in Highlands

Decision by Department of Environmental Protection to approve a permit for a controversial development in Tewksbury may end up in the courts

Rockaway Creek
The state Department of Environmental Protection has given a permit for a new sewage treatment plant that would discharge into Rockaway Creek, a project deemed inconsistent with the regional master plan of the New Jersey Highlands Council.

The project, involving a proposed office park in Tewksbury, is likely to wind up in litigation again as it is opposed by local officials, residents, and conservationists who say the facility could increase flooding and threaten drinking water supplies.

The proposal by Bellemead Development Corporation near Route 78 is designed to serve approximately 700,000 square feet of office space, according to the draft water permit issued by the DEP. Neither the plant nor the office park have been built.

Even with approval of the final permit, however, the project may end up in litigation in court, where there already is a long history. The DEP originally issued a permit for the office development in 1998, but despite having state and local approvals, it never got built.

That permit expired, and the developer again sought approval from the agency, which it won in 2014. But the permit was contested by the Sierra Club of New Jersey, the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, Readington Township, and the Raritan Headwaters Association. A state appeals court remanded the case back to the DEP, saying the agency failed to consult with the New Jersey Highlands Council, which oversees development within the 800,000-acre region.

Protecting stream quality

In its latest approval, the DEP argued the permit is in compliance with all state water quality standards. Responding to criticism from foes that the approval violates the Highlands Act and the council’s regional management plan, the agency said the permit sets stringent effluent standards to protect stream quality.

But the Highlands Council maintains the project still fails to conform with its plan. Critics also argued the permit conflicts with the township’s and county’s own Water Quality Management Plans.

“The DEP is approving the project even though it is in the wrong place and the wrong town,’’ said Julia Somers, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition. “It is absolutely nonsensical.’’

“This project will encourage overdevelopment, increase flooding and pollute our waters,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Everybody opposes it, but it keeps moving forward,’’ he said.

Major portions of Rockaway Creek are designated as a Category 1 or C-1 stream, a designation given to the most pristine streams in the state. The sewer pipe, however, will be in a section of the creek given less stringent protections.