Trenton — An industry-dominated task force today delivered a long-awaited report on reforming the Department of Environmental Protection that is long on spin and short on substance, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). While acknowledging major problems and flaws, the task force report proposes minor repairs, like better computer efficiency, but no real solutions.
DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson created the “Permit Efficiency Review” Task Force by Administrative Order of March 18, 2008, directing it to issue recommendations on administrative, regulatory and statutory changes needed to streamline DEP permit programs. The Task Force report was due on August 8 but was not released until today, more than a month later, despite bearing an August 7 date on its cover.
The 27-page report is more notable for what it does not say than what it says:
- Ignores Global Warming. Despite the charge that it address pressing climate change challenges, the Task Force mentions the topic only once in passing. Similarly, the report nods to but does not address sustainable development or how to address cumulative impacts;
- Collapse of Scientific Capacity. The Task Force admits the problem when it states: “Through the first two decades of the DEP’s history, the Office of Science and Research was one of the most highly regarded programs in the country. However, during the past two decades, budget cuts and reorganizations have undercut the quality of the program. While the Office still does excellent work, the staff simply cannot keep up with the breadth and scope of DEP needs.” Yet it proposes no steps to reverse the decline in DEP’s ability to apply science to environmental concerns; and
- Politicization. The report says: “In the absence of a process to establish DEP permit review priorities, individuals and representatives of various constituencies frequently seek to establish preferences in permit review schedules. Such activities are rarely transparent to the public and can add to inefficiencies in the permitting process.” But it recommends nothing to shield agency decisions from political pressure or manipulation.
“This report is a month late and a dollar short,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst, who has criticized the Task Force as business-dominated, rife with conflicts of interest and lacking public involvement. “The industry lobbyists who ghostwrote this report were slick enough to dodge all the hot potatoes and lacked the expertise to propose meaningful solutions.”
The Task Force did acknowledge severe DEP staff and budget cuts hamper environmental protection:
“During the past two decades, despite an increasing number of rules and regulations, with a corresponding increase in responsibilities and workload, DEP staff levels have been reduced by more than 1,000 employees – about 25 percent. Further reductions are continuing to take place as of this writing.”
Yet the Task Force stopped short of recommending hiring more staff.
“This exercise simply kicked the can down the road for the next administration to grapple with the underlying problems that are wrecking New Jersey’s environment,” Wolfe added. “New computer programs will not fix a system that is fundamentally corrupted.”
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