Trenton — The Christie administration is moving away from tough anti-pollution enforcement, with anticipated fine revenue falling by more than half, according to state records posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The precipitous drop in fine revenue will further reduce an already shrinking enforcement presence by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which depends on those funds to pay for inspections and monitoring of polluting industries.
The Christie budget numbers project a steep drop in DEP enforcement fine revenue from more than $14 million in FY 2009 (the last year in the books) to an anticipated $6,840,000. This trend is magnified when looking at total DEP revenues from fees and fines combined. The figures show an estimated $40 million reduction:
FY 09 (actual collected) $158,757,000
Christie FY 11 (anticipated) $118,754,000
“These reductions amount to under-the-table givebacks to corporations at the expense of the public,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP Analyst. “In a time of billion dollar deficits and draconian budget cuts, Governor Christie is cutting polluter fines.”
While the impact will be felt across all programs at DEP, it will fall especially hard on some high impact areas. For example, a recent report identified the Kuehne Chemical in South Kearny (between Newark and Jersey City) as the most dangerous chemical plant in the United State. Yet under the Christie budget oil and chemical plant safety fines are only expected to be $50,000, not enough to support a credible deterrent to violations of critical chemical safety requirements and shifting the burden to pay for the compliance monitoring program to taxpayers, instead of the chemical industry.
Other changes also indicate a deliberately softer approach to polluters. For example, DEP just revived the Whitman-era Office of Dispute Resolution. Under Whitman, that office served as industry’s back door to override enforcement staff and negotiate voluntary agreements in lieu of formal enforcement action. Significantly, DEP Commissioner Bob Martin is housing this Office of Dispute Resolution under the new Assistant Commissioner for Economic Development, a former auto industry and Chamber of Commerce lawyer.
“What is going on is about as subtle as changing the DEP motto to ‘Let’s Make a Deal,’” added Wolfe. “Commissioner Martin repeatedly talks about metrics as means to measure his record but, by any yardstick, cutting enforcement fines by half is a bad indicator.”
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