The state’s proposed changes to the planning process for wastewater plants are designed to give more control to local planners. But environmentalists say the measures would just make it easier to develop in environmentally sensitive areas and could devastate already threatened regions like the Highlands and Barnegat Bay.
The Department of Environmental Protection on Monday published an overhaul to its Water Quality Management Planning rule governing how counties and municipalities plan for sewage-treatment plants, saying the previous rule had become a bureaucratic barrier to such projects since being implemented by the administration of former Gov. Jon Corzine in 2008.
The new version of the rule – which requires local authorities to identify areas for wastewater plants based on the ecological capacity of bodies of water where the waste would be discharged -- would no longer require counties to supply a full range of technical data for the DEP to use in evaluating whether treatment plants can be built.
The change would eliminate the duplication of information, such as ambient water-quality standards, already held by the DEP, thus speeding the process, officials said.
And it would allow DEP to work together with local authorities to devise policies that protect sensitive areas while allowing development “where it is appropriate,” the agency said.
The current rule is “extremely complex,” duplicates existing planning requirements, and is a deterrent to economic growth in some areas, the DEP said.
“These revisions are consistent with the Governor’s goals of reducing unnecessary red tape while maintaining the high standards of environmental protection New Jersey residents expect,” said DEP Commissioner Bob Martin in a statement. “Through these rule changes, the DEP is adopting an approach to water-quality protection that recognizes that sound planning can and does occur at the local level.”
Michael Cerra, assistant executive director at the New Jersey League of Municipalities, said the new rule would shorten the time needed for local officials to evaluate sewage plant plans, and would create “more cohesion” between different jurisdictions that are sometimes doing the same work under the current plan.
Cerra said the league was still evaluating the proposal, but a first reading suggested it contains “a lot of positives,” he said.
The reduced volume of technical information that local planners would be required to submit to the DEP does not appear to mean less protection for the environment, Cerra said. “I don’t think they are rolling back environmental protection,” he said.
But Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, said the new rule would replace a system that has put a brake on development in some of the most environmentally sensitive areas of the state.
“Commissioner Martin’s announcement makes it very clear that DEP is working to promote more development across the state,” O’Malley said.
He said the rule change would scrap tighter protections such as standards for nitrate dilution for environmentally sensitive areas.
One of the biggest casualties would be Barnegat Bay, which has already been hurt by nutrient runoff from heavy development in Ocean County, and would suffer further damage under looser regulations, O’Malley said.
He argued that the rule change would make it easier to establish sewer service areas – areas connected by common sewage systems -- without which heavy development is not possible.
“Sewer service areas are the mother’s milk of development,” O’Malley said. “It’s very difficult to build massive development if you don’t have sewer service areas.”
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, called the changes “an assault on clean water” that would remove a level of protection to environmentally sensitive areas such as the Highlands and the Pinelands.
“The DEP is giving away its authority and review process for Water Quality Master Plan amendments to sewage authorities, other state agencies, and towns without proper reviews,” Tittel said in a statement. “There will no longer be DEP oversight or evaluation of environmental impacts like water supply, sprawl, and storm water discharge.”
He said towns do not have the expertise to evaluate the impact of development on drinking water.
But DEP said the new rule would limit where sewers can be built, keeping denser development away from environmentally sensitive areas, and would promote “more cooperation between DEP and the counties in finding solutions to environmental issues.
Dan Kennedy, the DEP’s Assistant Commissioner for Water Resource Management, denied the new rule would necessarily mean favorable treatment for developers but said that state and local agencies will be able to take a fresh look at applications under the new rule.
“We think property owners are going to get a fair shake,” he said in an interview.
But any decision by the DEP to issue environmental permits for a development proposal doesn’t necessarily mean a project will get built because the final decision will be down to the municipality, Kennedy said.
“The municipality gives them the right to build,” he said.
The DEP said in a statement that it has been meeting with stakeholders since 2012 to identify problems with the existing rule. It said many counties were unable to comply with a requirement that they complete “extremely detailed” wastewater management plans, which included projections for growth and sewer capacity, in part because that required zoning-impact studies that could only be decided at municipal level.
“This hampered the adoption of sewer service area mapping that is essential to sound planning and environmental protection,” the DEP said.
Margaret Nordstrom, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Council, declined to comment on the environmental effects of the new rule on the 1,300 square-mile area that supplies drinking water to some 5 million people. She said the working relationship between the council and the DEP under the rule change would be contained in a Memorandum of Agreement that has yet to be drawn up.
In the Highlands, Tittel said, the rule will result in a quadrupling of the density of septic systems from one house per 88 acres to one per 22 acres, a change that he said would increase development, boost runoff and lead to loss of forests.
Overall, the new rule represents a rollback of years of environmental regulations designed to protect water quality, Tittel said.
“It really changes the whole concept of water quality planning because it now makes it easier for towns to make amendments to their waste water plan so you can start adding in these environmentally sensitive lands pretty easily,” he said.
“Usually the DEP would oversee all this stuff in a very strict way,” he said. “It’s really a run away from that.”
The DEP will hold public hearings on the new plan on Nov. 10 in Morris Township; Nov. 17 in Clayton, and Nov. 30 in Trenton.