Lawmakers yesterday took action to require two powerful state departments to be more aggressive in resolving problems plaguing Barnegat Bay, an estuary many believe is slowly dying.
The two affected agencies are the state Department of Environmental Protection and the NJ Department of Transportation.
The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee sent two bills, part of a multi-bill package of legislation dealing with the waterway, to the full Senate for a vote. The bills passed unanimously, with very little debate.
Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the sponsor of the bills and chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, is hoping the legislation can win approval prior to Christmas, a holiday gift, he said, to the people of Ocean County.
That timeframe, however, is uncertain because some of the other bills in the package are much more controversial, particularly one that proponents say would create the nation’s toughest law governing the use of fertilizers. One of the biggest problems the bay faces is the tons of fertilizers from lawns, golf courses and other areas that wash into the estuary.
The bills acted on yesterday may not be as controversial but still would require a bigger state effort dealing with pollution problems in Barnegat Bay.
"If you asked me, the single biggest problem, and there are a lot of problems affecting the bay, are the 2,000 stormwater systems draining into it," Smith told the committee. "As a result, the bay is dying."
One of the bills (S-2275) would require the state Department of Transportation to study all of state-owned stormwater basins in the Barnegat Bay watershed and identify which systems are causing the most damage to the ecosystem. Once completed, it would require the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and New Jersey Transit to include repairs of the basins in their annual capital budget plans, based on which systems have the highest priority.
"Our government generates a lot of pollution into the bay," said Smith, who noted the bill came about when Ocean County officials balked at doing a county-wide study of stormwater problems, arguing they should not face mandates when the state was part of the problem.
The other bill (S-2341) would order the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to determine whether the bay is impaired, and, if so, require the agency to establish a so-called pollution diet for pollutants entering the ecosystem.
The approach is similar to one used to deal with pollution problems in the Chesapeake Bay region and the Peconic Bay in Long Island, but some questioned whether the agency could do all that in the two-year timeframe envisioned by the bill. In the case of Peconic Bay, the process took seven years, according to Stan Hale of the Barnegat Bay Estuary Program.
But Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the chairman of the panel, argued that without the timeframe, DEP would never complete the job. In testimony before Smith’s committee, DEP had asked that the bill be held, telling committee members it planned to unveil its strategy for cleaning up Barnegat Bay by the end of the year.