Plan to cut DEP rules won’t harm environment, agency chief says

Gov. Phil Murphy surprised some when he called for ending ‘antiquated permitting rules’
Credit: Nenad Stojkovic via Flickr
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The Department of Environmental Protection’s plans to eliminate outdated permitting rules at the agency will not compromise its efforts to protect natural resources, according to acting Commissioner Shawn LaTourette.

In a post-budget briefing Wednesday with reporters, LaTourette sought to clarify a vow by Gov. Phil Murphy the day before in his budget speech that he would streamline state government in New Jersey to “do away with antiquated permitting rules’’ at the DEP and other state agencies. Murphy said it “will cut government bureaucracy and get projects off the ground quicker.’’

That effort, part of a departmental effort to modernize the agency’s recordkeeping and permitting programs, is aimed at moving the machinery of DEP more quickly, LaTourette said.

“We will not compromise our (environmental) standards,’’ he said. Instead, he described the initiative as designed to promote smart growth without harming environmental protection.

The objective aligns with two top priorities of the department: to protect the state’s natural resources and to promote economic development, LaTourette said.

Source of complaints

The DEP’s recordkeeping and permit processes have long been a persistent source of complaints from the business community. Its open records requests alone exceed those of all other state agencies combined, according to LaTourette. Those records are necessary for a multitude of so-called due-diligence requests governing cleanups of brownfields, development of other tracts and a wide assortment of other transactions, for example.

The department plans to invest $3 million ‘’in bringing that process into the 21st century,’’ LaTourette said. He also said the agency plans to eliminate duplicative regulations, which prolong making a decision on permits.

But the Murphy pledge to streamline regulations raised eyebrows from some environmental organizations and even a business lobbyist who said it was echoing similar promises by other executives in the past to scrap onerous regulations that stifle economic growth.

“This struck me as a flashback to (former Lt. Governor) Kim Guadagno’s Red Tape Review Commission,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, referring to a Christie administration attempt to eliminate what it said were burdensome government programs. “Environmental regulations are needed now more than ever,’’ O’Malley said, citing the climate-change crisis.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed, noting former Gov. Chris Christie and former President Donald Trump have all said the same thing. “They all said they are not going to weaken standards, then they do,’’ he said.

Too many new rules

Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey, agreed there are many old environmental regulations that could be eliminated. But he added, there is a lot more than just eliminating antiquated rules. “I’d wished they would stop proposing new rules,’’ Hart said.

More importantly, Hart, a longtime former DEP executive, said the agency needs to do a deep organizational review of its structure. The department probably has one-half the staff it once had and may not have the personnel to write permits quickly enough.

LaTourette said the department will see a slight increase in staffing levels, but most of them will be used to backfill hundreds of vacant positions, although there also will be a focus on filling positions in the water-quality area dealing with lead-based exposure risks.

Other funding has been increased modestly for beach replenishment, brownfield redevelopments of former industrial properties, and water improvement infrastructure.

The department’s other big priority is building out the program to implement what administration officials view as the nation’s strongest environmental-justice law. “We have much work to do to achieve that,’’ LaTourette said.