Trenton — In a regulatory sleight of hand, the Christie Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has proposed to remove the ailing Barnegat Bay from the official list of water bodies slated for remedial action in the next two years. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) proposal to remove Barnegat Bay from the 2012 list of impaired waters flies in the face of a recent Rutgers University study that found the Bay on the verge of ecological collapse. If approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the effect will be disastrous for Barnegat Bay’s future viability, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Every two years states submit to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for review and approval a list of streams, lakes, bays and other water bodies that do not meet the minimum standards of the federal Clean Water Act. That “impaired” listing triggers a legal requirement that the state must develop and execute a recovery plan, called a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), which essentially puts the water-body on a pollution reducing diet until it returns to ecological health.
Earlier this month, New Jersey submitted its 2012 list to EPA but delisted major portions of Barnegat Bay with cryptic explanations, such as this:
“Applicable WQS [Water Quality Standard] attained; reason for recovery unspecified.”
The 2012 proposed deletion would reverse prior “impairment” designations by the DEP due to low levels of dissolved oxygen (DO) in the water. That finding was disputed in comments submitted to EPA by scientists at the Barnegat Bay Partnership (BBP), the lead management entity for the Bay. In addition to violating the DO standard, the Bay also suffers from severe eutrophication, over-abundant stinging jellyfish, hazardous algal blooms, and declining health of multiple biological indicators, including submerged aquatic vegetation.
Perhaps worst of all, the proposed delisting freezes any significant near-term action to heal the Bay, especially if DEP continues to employ regulatory evasions. For example, DEP would need to revise various surface water quality standards and assessment methods, both of which require public comment period and EPA approval, but no such plans are even on the horizon. Even if it Barnegat Bay were put back on the 2014 “impaired” list, a TMDL Report would be completed no sooner than 2016 which then must go through the rulemaking process as an amendment to the Water Quality Management Plan, a process taking a year or more. That would push clean-up implementation back to 2018 at the earliest.
“All of the ecological trends in Barnegat Bay are pointing downwards and this critical water body may soon reach a tipping point to becoming a dead zone,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, noting that Governor Chris Christie vetoed legislation last year requiring a TMDL for Barnegat Bay. “The DEP is defying the science and clearly violating the Clean Water Act by using regulatory powers in a political attempt to echo Governor Christie’s veto of a TMDL for the Bay. This amounts to a death sentence for Barnegat Bay.”
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability