Highlands Septic Study Faces Retraction Demand
Trenton — A federal study cited as the basis for increasing septic density in New Jersey’s Highlands Preservation Area violates information quality rules and should be withdrawn, according to an administrative complaint filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The Christie administration’s plan would allow greater development in the Highlands at the expense of its groundwater purity.
The August 2015 study by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is entitled “Median Nitrate Concentrations in Groundwater in the New Jersey Highlands Region Estimated Using Regression Models and Land-Surface Characteristics.” In an April 21, 2016 news release, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) touted the study as “comprehensive new scientific information” which supported what the agency termed “common sense revisions to Highlands septic density standards.”
Rather than being based on either new or comprehensive scientific information, the USGS study is actually based on old state data of extremely poor quality and reliability. The PEER complaint points out that 96% of the study’s data is drawn from the state’s Private Well Testing program which even the DEP concedes is highly questionable for a number of reasons, including that the data is –
- Unverified with no quality controls to confirm validity;
- Skewed and not necessarily representative of the Highlands deep aquifer; and
- Drawn from wells outside the Highlands Preservation Area.
“This study suffers from a classic case of GIGO – garbage in; garbage out,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe. “It is telling that every one of the flawed data and methodologies are all biased in the same direction – justifying further degradation of waters in a preservation area.”
The PEER complaint charges that the study violates the federal Information Quality Act which requires that official statistical reports must rely upon the best available data and have a high degree of reliability. The USGS has 90 days to respond to the complaint. If it does not retract the study, PEER can appeal which may trigger the convening of an independent expert panel. In 2013, PEER used a similar complaint to induce the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to retract its long-time safety endorsement for artificial turf because it was based on inconclusive and misleading science.
Leaky septic systems are now the primary cause of new surface and groundwater water quality impairments in New Jersey. One of the principal protections for Highlands’ waters are the 25 and 88-acre lot septic density standards for development, which DEP is now proposing to weaken.
“New Jersey should table its Highlands septic move until the underlying data it is relying on can be independently examined,” Wolfe added. “The whole reason for making the Highlands a preservation area was to protect it from precisely the type of ruinous development now being planned.”