DEP reverses course, set to deny permit for long-contested sewage treatment plant in Highlands

The facility would discharge almost 100,000 gallons of sewage into Rockway Creek
Credit: saebaryo (CC BY-ND 2.0)
In the Highlands

In a reversal, the state Department of Environmental Protection is now proposing to deny a permit for a new sewage treatment facility in Tewksbury, a project that opponents argued could increase flooding and threaten drinking water supplies.

The Bellemead Development Corporation is proposing a system to serve approximately 700,000 square feet of office space with an on-site sewage treatment plant that would discharge roughly 96,000 gallons of sewage into Rockaway Creek daily. Neither the office development nor the plants have been built, even though the former won a permit from the DEP back in 1998.

The location of the plant is just off Interstate 78 in an area identified as a protection zone under the New Jersey Highlands Act, a designation that makes it more difficult to win approval for such projects.

“The plant would have added a lot of pollution to an almost pristine stream and would have led to more sprawl and overdevelopment over an environmentally sensitive area,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, a group that has sued to block the project at least three times.

The Sierra Club sued when DEP granted the original sewer permit, and then again with the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, the township of Readington, and the Raritan Headwaters Association, over the failure of the state agency to consult with the New Jersey Highlands Council when a new permit was issued. The council oversees development within the 800,000-acre region.

A state appeals court agreed with the plaintiffs, sending the case back to the DEP in 2017. The agency eventually agreed to issue a new permit, but rescinded it and approved a plan by local communities to reject the sewer service project.

Recent factors affecting the decision

In a draft denial of the latest permit, the agency Thursday cited a couple of recent factors in its decision. The first is a revision in March of an area Water Quality Management Plan, which eliminated a provision allowing a sewer service area in Tewksbury. The department may not issue a water pollution permit if it conflicts with the area’s Water Quality Management Plan, according to the DEP.

In addition, the Highlands Council advised the DEP late last month the project is inconsistent with its Regional Master Plan, a stance it has repeated often during the later stages of the controversy over the project.

“It’s a good decision because it understands there are too many Highlands’ resources that need to be protected that are at risk,’’ said Elliott Ruga, policy director of the Highlands Coalition. “It is not the place for it (the project).’’

Portions of Rockaway Creek are designated as category one (C1) streams, considered the most pristine waterways in New Jersey, although not where the proposed plant would be located.

“This is an important victory for clean water and the Highlands,’’ Tittel said. “It shows you have to have perseverance and patience to protect clean water in New Jersey.’’

Bellemead did not respond to a call for comment.