ENVIRONMENT

Environmental Activist Blasts Court Ruling Allowing Waiver of DEP Rules

The New Jersey Appellate Division sided with the Christie administration in determining that there are certain limited circumstances in which environmental rules should be waived. But environmentalists, like Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club, are outraged. He told Senior Correspondent Desirée Taylor that the court gave too much deference to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

“I don’t know how a court can say that a rule can go beyond legislative authority and then uphold the rule,” he said. “So we intend to appeal this to the state Supreme Court.”

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As the state continues to recover from one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s history, Tittel said one of the lessons of Hurricane Sandy is that areas that had strict regulations fared better than those that didn’t. Also, he said regulations are in place to protect residents and any waiver of them impacts their lives.

“So many communities in this state are so overburdened with pollution whether it’s water pollution or air pollution … so when you waive compliance with regulations and rules, it means that our water is not going to be as clean, it means our air is going to be dirtier, it means more sprawl and more flooding,” he explained.

Tittel blames delays at the DEP, in terms of processing of applications, to insufficient staffing and equipment. He said the new ruling provides a disincentive for people to go through the application process, choosing instead to seek a waiver.

“Why should you have to comply with the rules when you can try to seek a waiver so it’s actually going to add more work not less work,” he said.

He added that another reason for seeking a waiver has to do with cutting costs, not just by commercial developers but public agencies like the Department of Transportation.

“It’s cheaper to put a road right through a wetland than to build a bridge,” he cited as an example. “Well, if you start filling in wetlands, you add to flooding. So you have to look at things as a core mission of the Department of Environmental Protection which is to protect life, property and environment, and I think that when you waive things, you end up creating more problems than you end up solving.”

Asked whether FEMA’s new flood maps is a right response in the wake of Sandy, Tittel said that while he applauds the Christie administration’s intent to move the state forward, he questions the rationality of adopting the new guidelines. FEMA’s maps are incomplete and the scientific data to support the new elevation standards has yet to be determined, according to Tittel.

“In some areas, people are going to have to build to a higher standard than necessary. We’re also concerned in other areas, especially along the coast with sea level rise, and the FEMA maps do not reflect sea level rise or climate change that we may end up building in places and in elevations that may be too low causing damage the next time there’s a major storm.”