Trenton — State environmental officials are complaining about intense “pressure” from the Governor’s office to cut corners on a controversial wind turbine project, according to e-mails released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The episode illustrates the extent of political intervention in New Jersey into what are supposed to be technical and scientific decisions.
At issue is a 1.5 megawatt wind turbine to be built by the Bayshore Regional Sewerage Authority (BRSA). The wind turbine will be 380 feet tall and have 118-foot blades sitting on a 240-foot high pedestal atop a concrete pad over 24 pilings adjacent to Raritan Bay. Almost half the $7.7 million project would be financed by American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds which are conditioned on “shovel ready” work that is undertaken by 2010. The local town of Union Beach opposes the project.
In a September 23, 2009 e-mail to Kenny Esser from Governor Jon Corzine’s office, Fred DeSanti, a consultant for the project, asks for “direct intervention at this time from the front office” to stop the state Department of Environmental Protection from imposing “unreasonable and inflexible requirements” that would delay the project and possibly jeopardize the more than $3 million in federal stimulus funds.
“These e-mails show just how deeply politicized environmental permitting and enforcement have become,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst, noting that BSRA wants to start construction before finishing required studies on avian impacts. “This may be a good project but it is important that it be done right, knowing the consequences before the concrete is poured.”
The next day, on September 24th, Acting DEP Commissioner Mark Mauriello sent an e-mail to his top staff complaining about being leaned on by the Governor’s office:
“[The attached] illustrates the pressure that nancy [sic] is under related to this project, and we have little ability to control it and of course the full story and context does not get represented with these folks, but what else is new.”
“nancy” refers to Nancy Wittenberg, the DEP Assistant Commissioner for Environmental Regulation responsible for permits and approvals. Wittenberg herself was lobbyist for the New Jersey Builders Association before being appointed to the DEP job.
“When a former construction industry lobbyist feels undue political pressure, it must be pretty intense,” remarked Wolfe. “Significantly, the issue here is not whether BSRA gets a permit but how fast and under what conditions.”
Government incentives have churned up a land rush frenzy on wind power projects. Last month, for example, PEER disclosed behind-the-scene efforts by a powerful South Jersey Senator and a former DEP Commissioner to reverse a DEP scientific finding that Delaware Bay is not appropriate for “any large scale wind energy project...given its strategic location on the North American flyway and importance to migratory and other bird populations.” That proposed 100 turbine wind farm would cover 42 square miles in northwestern Delaware Bay.
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