Funding for State Pollution Control Dropped 12% in Decade to 2018, Study Says

Jon Hurdle | December 9, 2019 | Energy & Environment, Water
Advocates say long-running spending cuts threaten DEP’s ability to protect environment
Credit: Pixabay
New Jersey was among 30 states where spending declined on environmental agencies from 2008 to 2018.

Funding and staffing for pollution control by New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection dropped by double digits in the 10 years to 2018, part of a national trend of deep cuts in budgets for environmental agencies, according to a new study.

The study by the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit that investigates polluters, used state data to calculate how much operating expenditure had been lost and how much employment in the agencies’ pollution-control divisions had been cut over the last decade.

In New Jersey, it found that the total DEP budget was 11.9% lower in fiscal 2018 than it was in inflation-adjusted terms in fiscal 2008. Over the same period, its work force dropped 19% to 1,858 from 2,321, according to the data obtained by EIP.

In the current fiscal year, 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy proposed a DEP budget of $319.4 million, according to the Governor’s Budget in Brief, published in February. That was 17.8% lower than the appropriated level for fiscal 2019 but the gap is expected to be bridged by supplemental appropriations, and additional proceeds to DEP from the Corporate Business Tax.

The EIP’s 38-page study, titled “The Thin Green Line,” based its numbers on spending and staffing that were dedicated to work on air and water pollution rather than on areas such as parks or hunting, which are also managed by state environmental agencies.

In New Jersey, a line item on environmental regulation, for example, showed inflation-adjusted spending of $58.7 million in fiscal 2008 dropped to $51.2 million in fiscal 2018. Staffing for that division of the DEP declined to 397 from 519 over the period, according to an EIP spreadsheet based on DEP data, which was released along with the report last Thursday.

The DEP did not respond to a request for comment.

New Jersey was one of 16 states that did not respond to a request in late October from the nonprofit to verify their numbers after they were compiled from state budget documents, said Keene Kelderman, a research analyst who gathered the data.

Even bigger cutbacks in other states

Among 30 states where spending declined on environmental agencies over the decade, the biggest fall was in Wisconsin, which lost 36% of its budget, followed by Texas, Louisiana and North Carolina, the study found. Overall, states cut more than 4,400 jobs at environmental agencies over the decade, it said.

The Environmental Integrity Project’s executive director, Eric Schaeffer, said states have been taking on some of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s responsibilities for clean air and clean water as the EPA’s own budget is slashed, but many don’t have the capacity to do all the inspections or issue all the permits that they need to.

“Our report suggests that many of the states that have accepted those big responsibilities just don’t have the resources, the money, or the expert staff to get the job done,” Schaeffer said, during a conference call with reporters. One result, he said, is the “rubber stamping” of permits that are issued without the right level of scrutiny.

In New Jersey too, environmentalists say a shortage of funding is stopping DEP doing its job properly.

“What it shows is the more you cut funding for the Department of Environmental Protection, the more pollution you have, the more toxic sites don’t get cleaned up, the more water quality gets impacted,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Among the effects of DEP’s funding shortfall, Tittel said, has been a drop in the number of inspections of projects that can have an environmental effect.

“If you don’t have the staff to do the inspections, you don’t do the inspections, and you end up with a polluters’ holiday,” Tittel said. “These cuts have direct consequences.”

Long-term decline in funding

Sen. Bob Smith (D, Middlesex), chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, said he was not surprised by the new evidence of a long-term funding decline, in part because of eight years of the Christie administration, which he called “no fan of the environment.”

By contrast, the Murphy administration is trying to build up some environmental programs after the long-term funding decline, Smith said. And in a sign of an active pro-environment stance, the state has filed a series of natural resource damage suits against polluters this year, requiring evidence gathered from the DEP.

“I think this administration is doing its best to fill positions and see to it that the environment is getting protection, compared to the prior eight years which were horrible,” he said.

But significant problems like the need to upgrade crumbling water infrastructure and prepare for sea-level rise show that the DEP’s challenges are getting bigger and more complex, and so it should have more people to tackle them, Smith said.

New Jersey faces “humongous” water-related issues including saltwater intrusion, the need to interconnect local water systems, and the increasing incidence of contamination with PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) and other chemicals — all of which require a well-funded DEP to act on them, he said.

“We need to beef up DEP so that they have sufficient people to do all of the tough tasks that we give them,” Smith said.

Cuts began under Whitman

The history of DEP funding cuts goes back as far as the administration of Gov. Christie Whitman from 1994 to 2001, and it has never recovered, said Amy Goldsmith, New Jersey director of Clean Water Action, an environmental nonprofit.

Continuing budget cuts are worsened by the departure or retirement of long-serving, highly skilled employees who may not be replaced, she said.

“Every time the DEP is cut, it is compounded by the impacts of decades of previous agency cuts and the exodus or retirement of talent,” Goldsmith said.

Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, urged the Murphy administration to reverse decades of underfunding for the DEP.

“It’s hard for the DEP to fulfill its regulatory authority with deliberate speed with 20 percent less staff than a decade ago,” O’Malley said. “Reports like this should be a fire alarm in the night for the Murphy administration to increase funding for core agencies like NJDEP that have suffered from underfunding and flat budgets.”