In a move denounced by lawmakers and environmentalists, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) yesterday proposed to waive regulatory requirements in limited cases where the rules prove to be "unduly burdensome."
The proposal, spurred by an executive order issued by Gov. Chris Christie shortly after taking office, aims to remove unreasonable impediments to economic growth as long as doing so does not compromise protections for the environment or public health, according to a press release issued by the state agency.
The draft rule published in the New Jersey Register this week marks the latest effort by the administration and Democratic legislature to ease some of the state’s environmental regulations in an effort to make New Jersey more business friendly. On Monday, the Assembly is scheduled to vote on a bill making it more difficult for New Jersey to adopt tougher pollution laws than the federal government, a measure spurred by the administration’s Red Tape Review Commission.
In announcing the rule, state officials stressed it was not meant to undermine environmental protections.
"This is an important tool that will benefit the environment and the state's economy,'' said DEP Commissioner Bob Martin. "One size doesn't always fit all in government. This offers a practical flexibility in allowing us to deal with issues."
Martin said the state must understand that policies adopted in Trenton affect employers, job creators, local governments and families throughout the state. "We have an opportunity to change how government operates in a positive way. We can cut through unnecessary red tape and provide real solutions to real-world problems, while maintaining our high protective standards," he said.
The agency would be allowed to consider a possible waiver of a regulation only if it met one of four special conditions: if it conflicted with other state or federal rules; if it were unduly burdensome; if there would be a “net environmental benefit," or if there were a public emergency,
But critics of the proposal argued it was written so broadly that it would allow politically connected developers to push through projects that would be a detriment to the environment.
Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), the chairman of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee, called the proposal a threat to clean water.
"Creating a loophole that will allow developers to threaten drinking water supplies opens the door for economic and environmental disaster," McKeon said. "New Jersey won’t be able to spark economic growth if its water is polluted. Economic growth and clean water go hand-in-hand."
Dena Mottola Jabroska, executive director of Environment New Jersey, agreed.
"The waiver rule is simply a bad idea. It would create a formal loophole process that is asking for abuse. Supposedly burdensome regulations for developers are what helps protect our drinking water supplies," she said. "The commonsense move would be to let New Jersey’s environmental laws stand on their own, and not distribute get-out-of-jail free cards.
Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, described the rule as part of the administration's ongoing attack on the environment. "This rule is so vague and so loose that the DEP commissioner can pretty much do whatever he wants and weaken any environmental protection to take care of special interests," he said.
According to the state, however, a waiver would not be granted in any case inconsistent with any New Jersey or federal laws, regional air agreements, emissions-trading programs, or health and safety standards. Permit fees also cannot be waived. The review process would be transparent: All applications to and approvals by the DEP would be disclosed to the public.