Trenton — The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has quietly proposed a series of new rules implementing “enforcement grace period” policies for an array of environmental violations. Under grace periods, DEP is prohibited from issuing fines for violations classified as “minor” if the violator comes back into compliance within 30 days, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
A decade ago, former Governor Christie Whitman inaugurated grace periods under her controversial “Open for Business” initiative to stimulate the economy by offering industry regulatory and enforcement incentives. The revival of these policies is curious, given that several new, supposedly high-priority DEP rules are stalled and Governor Jon Corzine won environmental endorsements for campaign promises to toughen anti-pollution, chemical plant safety, and land use laws.
Under grace period policies, violations ranging from breach of hazardous waste management standards to not submitting required reports may be forgiven. In the past few weeks, DEP has filed notices that it will adopt grace period policies for laws governing –
- Water pollution;
- Leaking underground tanks;
- Wetlands protections;
- Flood hazard abatement; and
- Coastal zone management.
This April, the Corzine administration also adopted relaxed enforcement sanctions for chemical plants for violations of the state’s Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act, despite the emphasis that Gov. Corzine had placed on mandatory chemical plant rules for the handling of extraordinarily hazardous chemicals.
“I am utterly mystified how the major environmental problems facing New Jersey will be ameliorated by adopting a ‘no-harm-no-foul’ policy for corporate polluters and irresponsible developers,” stated Bill Wolfe, a former DEP official who now heads the New Jersey chapter of PEER. “The state’s fiscal crisis is also not going to be helped by forfeiting revenue from fines and penalties.”
DEP officials have admitted that the state has been struggling under a backlog of proposed rulemaking on a host of environmental topics. The diversion of resources and attorney time toward the pursuit of grace periods is further delaying and displacing promulgation of other environmental rules, including those rules promised by Gov. Corzine in last year’s campaign.
“For DEP to move forward with rules to implement a demonstrably failed enforcement policy while other critical rules languish reflects a misguided set of priorities” concluded Wolfe.
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.