Trenton — New Jersey has created an industry-dominated task force to recommend revising state anti- pollution permit standards and procedures, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The action is part of a concerted statewide drive by business lobbyists to blame the state’s recent slumping economy on environmental safeguards.
In an Administrative Order dated March 18, 2008, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Lisa Jackson inaugurated a Permit Efficiency Review Task Force. Within 120 days, the Task Force is directed to issue recommendations on administrative, regulatory and statutory changes needed to streamline DEP permit programs.
At the same time, the Department of Community Affairs is working with the Builders Association to develop a package of changes to promote housing construction by watering down environmental standards. Flood hazard and stream buffer zones are two DEP permit areas targeted by this effort.
Commissioner Jackson’s order covers not only housing rules but also air and water pollution discharge permits. The only area left out of bounds for the task force is site remediation, which is undergoing a separate review following a string of high-profile horror stories.
“It takes a lot of brass to suggest that the real culprit in the construction slowdown is not the recent financial collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market but is pollution standards and wetland protections,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe. “Further degrading New Jersey’s environment is not going to attract investment needed to turn things around.”
One action area cited by Commissioner Jackson’s order is privatizing DEP operations by delegating pollution “permit and compliance verification” to “third parties.” “The last thing New Jersey needs is even more industry control of environmental regulation,” Wolfe commented.
The order also calls for changes that would “have little or no impact on public health and safety, the environment or natural resources” – a posture that seems to concede that there will be no improvements on issues such as greenhouse gas controls, toxic discharges and pharmaceuticals in drinking water.
“There is a recurrent theme going back to the Florio Administration of the business community using DEP as the whipping boy for bad economic news; the results are a long trail of awful so-called ‘reforms’ that have to be altered after they produce the inevitable scandal,” added Wolfe, pointing to previous failed initiatives such as the Permit Extension Act (I and II), Governor Florio's Environmental Management Accountability Plan (EMAP), Whitman's Strategy for Regulatory Relief (STARR) and McGreevey’s Fast Track.
The DEP Permit Task Force membership draws heavily from development interests and anti-regulatory advocates with long histories in state environmental politics. “This new Task Force membership roster signals that hard won environmental protections are in for a mugging,” Wolfe concluded.
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