NJ environmental commissioner McCabe to retire

Head of Department of Environmental Protection says her last day will be Jan. 15
Credit: (Edwin J. Torres/Governor’s Office)
Jan. 27, 2020, Department of Environmental Commissioner Catherine McCabe at unveiling of Energy Master Plan.

Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe plans to retire effective Jan. 15, ending a three-year stint during which she sought to spur more aggressive action by the agency in fighting climate change and tackling problems faced by environmental justice communities.

McCabe announced her departure Tuesday in an early morning e-mail, telling staff she had advised Gov. Phil Murphy of plans to retire early next year. “As with all personal milestones for me, this was a family decision,’’ the note said, while expressing an interest to spend more time with her children and grandchildren.

In a news release by the governor’s office, Murphy said he will announce a successor in the coming weeks. The odds-on favorite appears to be Shawn LaTourette, a deputy commissioner and chief of staff at DEP, who sources said has had a key role in running the agency over recent months.

“Through Catherine’s leadership, our administration has advanced critical initiatives to protect the environment and public health for future generations,’’ Murphy said. “Commissioner McCabe has restored the department to its rightful place as a national leader in environmental protection.’’

McCabe’s key initiatives involved taking much more aggressive action to respond to climate change and to try and reduce pollution burdens suffered by minority and low-income communities. Under her, the agency also renewed efforts to force polluters to pay for damages to natural resources, an issue mostly neglected by the prior Christie administration.

Mixed reviews

Her tenure was viewed with mixed reactions from the environmental community.

“Commissioner McCabe has righted and redirected a ship the Christie administration left listless,’’ said Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. “The department has led bold, nation leading, initiatives to protect families and businesses from carcinogenic forever chemicals like PFAs, held polluters accountable for harm, advanced environmental justice legislation to address harmful cumulative impacts.’’

Others were more critical. “Her tenure was a big disappointment,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, citing the department’s failure to rescind rollbacks of environmental rules by the Christie administration. “The biggest problem we’ve seen is that the DEP hasn’t had the sense of the climate emergency we’re facing.’’

The business community often had big differences with the department, lobbyists said. “While we have not agreed with some of the department’s decisions, Commissioner McCabe has consistently provided the regulated community an opportunity to share science-based information to help inform future regulation and policy changes,’’ said Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey.

The next commissioner faces some big challenges, particularly in a year when the governor is seeking to be elected to a second term. The department is now trying to draft rules to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide.

In addition, clean-energy advocates are pushing the administration to join the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a program somewhat modeled after the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Instead of controlling emissions from power plants, the proposal would target tailpipe emissions that contribute to climate change. The proposal could boost gasoline prices by up to 17 cents a gallon, according to some projections.

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