Trenton — Abandoning a standard nearly ten years in the making, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has quietly walked away from proposed reductions in the discharge of mercury, PCBs and DDT into the state’s waterways, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The abandoned standards were designed to protect the bald eagle, peregrine falcon and other river-dependent species from the effects of toxic buildup.
Adoption of the standards would have forced hundreds of industrial facilities, sewage treatment plants, and toxic waste sites to reduce ongoing discharges of these toxic pollutants into state waters. The standards would have provided enforceable, science-based criteria to guide permanent cleanup of tons of contaminated soils and sediments leaching these toxins into waterways, to the detriment of wildlife.
Due to industry opposition, DEP has dragged its feet in ratcheting down water pollution discharges, despite repeated entreaties from federal agencies and strong support from DEP’s own scientists:
- In a June 26, 1996 Biological Opinion, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that New Jersey’s surface water quality standards would not protect bald eagle and peregrine falcon populations from bioaccumulation of mercury, PCBs and the pesticide DDT. As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency directed DEP to develop new wildlife criteria to minimize adverse effects on species federally listed as threatened or endangered;
- DEP itself proposed these standards back on November 18, 2002. The specific standards arose out of a joint federal-state scientific workgroup that produced a July 2001 study entitled: “A Derivation of New Jersey-specific Wildlife Values and Surface Water Criteria for: PCB’s, DDT, Mercury;” and
- EPA, in an October 15, 2003 letter to DEP, stated “EPA strongly supports the adoption of these wildlife criteria as soon as possible, preferably before the November 18, 2003 ‘sunset date’” – one year after DEP’s initial proposal.
Not only did DEP miss the 2003 target “sunset date” but, in the ensuing months, it took none of the steps required to revive the standards. In its place, DEP announced a series of highly touted piecemeal actions to strengthen voluntary cleanup agreements at a handful of toxic sites along the Delaware and Raritan Rivers that involved simply capping these sites, so that they can be more quickly and cheaply developed.
“New Jersey claims to have the nation’s most stringent mercury standards, aggressive water pollution control permitting and wildlife protections but Commissioner Campbell’s decision to jettison protective wildlife standards reveals that a lot of that is just public relations spin,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP official, noting that DEP’s website is dominated by a photo of a peregrine falcon. “To put this in perspective, the proposed standards are not nearly as strict as EPA’s recommended limits for PCB’s in the Delaware River— in other words this bar has been set pretty low but DEP is still balking.”
Ironically, DEP Commissioner Brad Campbell’s decision ignores repeated recommendations from federal agencies, such as EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that under the Bush administration are rarely accused of being overzealous.
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.