Trenton — The Christie administration has quietly made regulatory changes significantly weakening longstanding protections for New Jersey's groundwater, the water supply for millions of state residents, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). These changes allow polluters to walk away from obligations to clean up groundwater if the developers determine that the cleanup would be too costly or “technically impractical.”
For more than 30 years, New Jersey groundwater has been classified as a public resource, safeguarded as a major source of drinking water. But industry has long pressed for relaxing these strict standards, which impose significant costs in some cases. These changes are another example of Governor Christie's “regulatory relief” policies rolling back public health and environmental protections in order to reduce industry compliance costs in the name of promoting economic development.
The new “Technical Impracticability Guidance for Groundwater” was developed in a series of “invitation only” meetings between developers and state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) officials. This “Guidance” was recently posted on the DEP website, without public notice or opportunity for comment. The Guidance raises a number of troubling concerns, including –
- The Guidance lacks clear, specific, objective, science-based standards defining “technical impracticability” to provide safeguards to prevent abuse;
- The Guidance allows industry compliance costs to trump public health and the environment; and
- It would be administered by Private Licensed Site Remediation Professionals who are consultants to the polluters. These private consultants would make these determinations with little DEP oversight.
“This is a disturbing reversal of longstanding policy that regards groundwater as a public resource not a private cesspool,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former long-time DEP analyst. “It is utterly reckless to cede private consultants control over the safety of much of New Jersey’s water supply.”
PEER also argues that there is no legal authorization for this Guidance, which flies in the face of recent legislation banning DEP from developing Guidance documents without following formal rulemaking procedures. Formal rulemaking not only allows public review but also requires a statutory basis for any action. Further, the Guidance appears to run counter to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidance on the same topic.
“Regulatory changes of this magnitude should be accomplished through formal rulemaking, in the clear light of day, not in ‘by invitation only’ meetings excluding the public,” Wolfe added, noting that DEP used a similar closed-door process last year to essentially deregulate deadly vapor intrusion. “Given our history of rampant industrial contamination, I am concerned the Christie administration could declare the entire State of New Jersey ‘technically impracticable’ to clean up.”
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