Trenton — A long-awaited decision on protecting New Jersey rivers and lakes from pollution and development is disappointingly modest and pockmarked with exceptions and loopholes, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As adopted this past week, many key water-bodies will not be safeguarded, and any added protections are unnecessarily vulnerable to legal challenge.
The May 20, 2008 decision by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) applies the “Category One” (C1) designation, effectively the state’s highest level of water-quality protection which limits development impacts and discharges of pollutants to streams, rivers and lakes that either support critical wildlife or feed into a major drinking-water source. According to DEP, it applied C1 status to 686 of the 910 stream miles proposed in 2007, covering, most notably, the Toms River.
This DEP claim, however, is an overstatement, as approximately half of these new C1 waters (between 250-400 miles) are located within the Highlands Preservation Area and thus were already protected. Further drawbacks that undermine the DEP claim of a major water quality achievement include –
- Elimination of the C1 “candidate waters” list of 1,600 streams that DEP scientists determined met the C1 criteria. This backhanded repeal, at the behest of the building industry, leaves more than 1,000 stream miles without a defense against development-induced degradation; and
- Adoption of new, less protective designation methodology. DEP embraced this revised C1 criteria despite virtually unanimous opposition from the environmental community. These revisions create two problems by–
- Erecting arbitrary, non-scientific barriers against safeguarding a wide variety of water-bodies, such as those providing drinking water for fewer than 100,000 people, important for recreation, and saline waters (estuaries and coastal bays); and
- Exposing the entire plan to new legal challenges, given that the prior C1 criteria had been upheld just last year as scientifically and legally sound by the Appellate Division against a lawsuit by the Builders Association.
“DEP seems determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by giving industry opponents a second bite at crippling lawsuits,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP official who headed the C1 program initiative from 2002-2004. “A new round of litigation could tie things up for some time and, if successful, force DEP back to the drawing board, undoing years of work.”
In addition, DEP omitted many streams from the C1 final list due to corporate opposition. For example, DEP dropped protection for a specific stretch of the Stony Brook to accommodate 1.6 million square feet of proposed corporate office park expansion and expansion of the Pennington sewer plant.
“Exceptions in this decision read like they were written by their corporate beneficiaries,” Wolfe added, noting that DEP omissions match public comments filed by developer opponents. “DEP did not even protect the portion of Stony Brook where it held its Earth Day press conference announcing its plan.”
Another example of this special interest dynamic is Intrawest Mountain Creek Resort, a massive 1.6 million square foot controversial ski development slated for the watershed of Black Creek, a tributary to the Wallkill River. A well-known and politically-connected engineering firm that submitted the comments on behalf of Intrawest invoked the support of Governor Corzine:
“Also noteworthy is the fact that Governor Jon Corzine personally visited Mountain Creek and expressed his belief that the proposed redevelopment project is a definitive example of smart, environmentally sensitive economic development.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Black Creek was dropped from the C1 lists, facilitating the destruction of threatened Bog Turtle habitat with this new development.
Other opponents who filed comments against the original C1 plan include the state Builders Association, Business and Industry Association, Chamber of Commerce, Bristol Myers Squibb (Hopewell Campus expansion), Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, Heritage Minerals, and the Departments of the Army (Picatinny Arsenal) and Air Force. Significantly, the DEP plan was also opposed by both Governor Corzine’s Office of Smart Growth and the state Department of Transportation.
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