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New Jersey Throws Cloak Over Environmental Documents

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New Jersey Throws Cloak Over Environmental Documents

Large Categories of Enforcement, Inspection and Property Records Going Off Limits

Trenton — In a little-noticed move, New Jersey has signaled that it will eliminate public access to a broad range of currently public documents, including records regarding enforcement negotiations with polluters and pollution permits, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Broad information categories that would leave the public domain also include records about reservoirs, refineries, sewage treatment plants, or any other facility deemed “critical infrastructure.”

The proposal posted this week by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) would block release for several new categories of records requested from under the state Open Public Records Act (OPRA), including –

  • Records “relating to mediation proceedings conducted by or on behalf of the Department.” This could not only make confidential a broad range of enforcement-related negotiations with polluters but also shield the operations of DEP’s new Office of Dispute Resolution from public scrutiny;
  • Information with homeland security implications. The sweeping wording (“If access to the record would interfere with the State’s security, then the record will not be produced”) could bar access to all DEP records on water, sewer, chemical plants or any other infrastructure; and
  • Records relating to land, acquisitions, property transfers or title searches where disclosure might jeopardize transactions. This exemption would likely prevent pre-review of the sweetheart easement DEP negotiated this summer for a $ 2 billion natural gas pipeline crossing parklands.

“Virtually every aspect of New Jersey’s environmental programs would benefit from more openness, not less,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst, noting that closed-door mediation policies recently prevented the public from attending the whistleblower hearing of the DEP’s senior nuclear engineer, Dennis Zannoni, who had raised safety concerns about the re-licensure of the Oyster Creek reactor. “DEP has not made a cogent argument for why we need additional state secrets.”

Deal-making within DEP also figured into the blockbuster corruption indictments of state legislators and other officials in the summer of 2009. Partially in reaction to those scandals, Governor Chris Christie pledged to make transparency and accountability hallmarks of his administration. Within DEP, newly appointed Commissioner Bob Martin said in an interview this past March: “One of the key things … for us is just transparency…. It’s my goal … to get everything out in the press … be very open about what we’re doing all the time and there’s no secrets.” “These new proposed public record exemptions do not square with Christie administration promises of transparency,” Wolfe added, pointing to his legal battles to extract records from DEP under the current OPRA standards. “Even if it is administratively inconvenient to the Department, the public has a right to know what is being done and said in its name.”

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Read the DEP records secrecy proposal

View the Christie pledge of transparency

Revisit the sweetheart pipeline deal

Recall the blockbuster corruption indictments of 2009

Look at an example of DEP compliance with OPRA

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