DEP head recuses himself from permitting decisions for South Jersey LNG terminal

Acting Commissioner Shawn LaTourette represented port developer when he was in private practice. Environmentalists say they didn’t know and have concerns
Credit: nj.gov
Shawn LaTourette is acting commissioner at the Department of Environmental Protection.

New Jersey’s top environmental official says he will not be involved with permitting decisions by the Department of Environmental Protection on a plan to build a South Jersey port that would include the state’s first liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal.

Acting Commissioner Shawn LaTourette filed a document on Jan. 25 recusing himself from 16 matters before the DEP including the Repauno site at Gibbstown in Gloucester County, which is being redeveloped by Delaware River Partners, a client of LaTourette’s when he was an attorney in private practice.

“Please be reminded that I am recusing myself from official matters before the Department in which I was engaged while an attorney in private practice,” LaTourette wrote in a memorandum to senior DEP officials. “I am delegating to you any and all responsibility and authority I might have for handling these matters. This recusal will remain in effect until withdrawn by me and communicated to you in writing.”

Environmentalists who oppose the export terminal say many did not know LaTourette once represented the developer before the agency he now heads, and that it raises questions about potential conflicts and the DEP’s decision-making process.

LaTourette’s memo lists the matters before the DEP that he worked on while he was an environmental attorney with a Newark law firm immediately before joining DEP in September 2018. Those matters include the Repauno Port and Rail Terminal, a project on which he represented Delaware River Partners on “all remediation and permitting concerns” before the DEP, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) and two federal agencies, according to the document, which was obtained via an Open Records Act request filed by Bill Wolfe, a former DEP employee.

The memo updated an earlier version of a recusal notice LaTourette filed when he joined the DEP. In the first memo, dated Sept. 25, 2018, he said he was recusing himself from 20 cases that he had worked on when he was a director of the environmental law department at the Gibbons law firm in Newark. He said he was removing himself from acting on those matters at the DEP “because I may be seen to have a conflict of interest in matters involving that firm.”

Recusal required by state ethics rules

Alyana Alfaro, a spokeswoman for Gov. Phil Murphy, said LaTourette recused himself from the Gibbstown project and other matters that he previously worked on in private practice, as required by state ethics rules.

“Acting Commissioner LaTourette was required to observe a one-year cooling off period related to his former employer,” Alfaro said in a statement. “In addition, he was required to permanently recuse from client matters, which he effectuated and has maintained since September 2018 when he joined the DEP.”

LaTourette’s authority on the recused matters will be given to Sean Moriarty, the DEP’s chief adviser for regulatory affairs, she said.

LaTourette declined to comment. DEP endorsed the statement by Murphy’s office and said it would have no other comment.

Opponents dismayed by recent construction approval

New Jersey was one of three basin states to vote in favor of a Delaware River Basin Commission decision on Dec. 9 to approve construction of a dock for the LNG terminal. The DRBC decision dismayed environmental groups that gathered more than 100,000 signatures from across the Delaware basin to oppose the plan. They say it would endanger public safety by transporting the highly explosive fuel through densely populated areas en route to the new port, and increase the emission of carbon dioxide by stimulating the production of natural gas.

The LNG would be shipped to Gibbstown in trucks or trains after being liquefied at Wyalusing in northeastern Pennsylvania about 175 miles away. At the new dock, it would be loaded on to ocean-going tankers, and exported.

Despite New Jersey’s vote in favor of the project at the DRBC meeting, Murphy said in late December he would try to “prevent” the transportation of LNG at the port.

Critics said the disclosure that LaTourette previously worked for clients that are now seeking permits from the agency he heads may raise questions in the public mind about the integrity of the DEP’s decisions.

“There certainly should never be any appearance of a tainted review of a project due to a conflict of interest within the permitting agency,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental group that has led opposition to the LNG project. “It leads to the questioning of the agency’s decision-making process. In this case, the leader of NJDEP needs to be head and shoulders above any whisper of impropriety — if there is any question at all, the public’s trust is eroded and that is unforgiveable.”

Carluccio’s group has appealed the DRBC decision in federal court in New Jersey and is appealing the DEP’s Waterfront Development Permit for the LNG dock, saying the agency didn’t correctly apply regulations on coastal zone management and other rules.

The other matters from which LaTourette has recused himself include representing Novartis Pharmaceuticals in litigation over a superfund site in Chatham, and representing New Jersey Transit in its application to the DEP for the redevelopment of a dry dock at Hoboken.