Murphy moves to make acting DEP boss permanent

Shawn LaTourette backed Murphy’s environmental budget before lawmakers as his nomination was announced
Credit: (NJ Governor's Office; (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Shawn LaTourette at the podium, with Gov. Phil Murphy

Shawn LaTourette will be nominated to be commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday, after serving as the agency’s acting commissioner for three months.

His nomination came on the same day LaTourette outlined a series of initiatives the department is taking to reduce global-warming pollution and make the state more resilient to rising sea levels and climate change before the Assembly Budget Committee.

As commissioner, LaTourette faces huge challenges, including fighting climate change in a state where sea levels are rising at a rate faster than most other places in the world. New Jersey also needs at least $30 billion to replace its antiquated drinking water, sewer and stormwater infrastructure, a cost that includes removing lead service pipes contaminating drinking water in homes.

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Up to the challenge — Gov. Murphy

Murphy said LaTourette is up to the challenges in a press statement announcing his nomination. “Shawn’s passion for environmental protection, coupled with his extensive knowledge on climate, energy and infrastructure, will help build an environmental legacy that exemplifies these principles,’’ Murphy said.

“When Shawn LaTourette puts his mind to something, it gets done,’’ added Kim Gaddy, Clean Water Action NJ and National Environmental Justice Director. “Now we need the most aggressive EJ and climate pollutant policies implemented as if our life depends on it, because it does.’’

But in Wednesday’s hearing before the Assembly Budget Committee, LaTourette deflected questions about new fossil-fuel projects being proposed in Newark’s Ironbound community, an area where residents are already coping with a number of power plants and Superfund toxic waste sites.

“At the end of the day, these projects will have to go through the DEP gauntlet,’’ LaTourette answered when pressed by lawmakers on how could these projects advance — given a new environmental justice law signed by Murphy. The law has been touted by the administration and environmental groups as the toughest of its kind in the nation.

LaTourette defended Murphy’s proposed budget for DEP, noting it includes another $60 million investment in the state’s Water Bank that will help leverage federal funds to continue funding for water infrastructure projects. Lawmakers are now reviewing Murphy’s budget, which calls for a record $4.8 billion in state spending, ahead of a July 1 deadline to pass a spending plan.

New program for watershed and land management

The department is also implementing a reorganization to create a new Watershed and Land Management program, LaTourette said. It will take a holistic approach to planning, permitting, mitigation and restoration of the state’s watersheds. Murphy’s budget allocates $11.4 million for watershed monitoring and protection efforts.

In addition, the proposed budget allocates another $20 million to shore protection efforts, above the typical $25 million set aside for beach replenishment projects each year.

In a bid to address the crisis of lead service lines, the acting commissioner said the department is in the process of developing rules for lead and copper in water systems that will go further than new regulations being proposed by the federal government.

“The new rules will revolutionize how water systems assess and eliminate lead risk, increase DEP’s oversight role and facilitate the long-term replacement of lead service lines statewide,’’ LaTourette said.

As for climate change, the DEP is preparing a suite of new rules to reduce carbon pollution from a wide variety of sources — power plants, diesel trucks and fleets owned by companies. The department plans to publish two sets of new regulations governing diesel trucks and fleets in Monday’s New Jersey Register, according to sources.

In other issues, Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-Sussex) criticized the administration’s plans to discontinue an annual bear hunt, citing increased nuisance and other complaints dealing with interactions with residents. “This is a crisis that can be contained,’’ Wirths said, worrying bear attacks could increase.

READ: State enacts tough environmental law