New Jersey has among the strictest rules in the country to protect land in flood zones from being contaminated. The Christie administration proposed wholesale rule changes to ease those regulations, contending that they were hindering economic growth. The state Legislature has now blocked the changes using a rarely employed tactic called a concurrent resolution. The New Jersey Sierra Club‘s hailing it as a major environmental victory. Its director is Jeff Tittel, who spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.
Williams: Why a major environmental victory?
Tittel: The rules that we have in place, which were bipartisan and took years to develop, not only protect people from flooding, but they also protect water quality in our highest quality streams and rivers especially around reservoirs. The Christie administration last year came out with these new rules that completely rolled back those protections. In a state that has had so much flooding and so many problems with water quality not only did it not make sense, but it’s going to cause a lot of damage to the people of New Jersey.
Williams: What specific revisions had the DEP proposed to the flood hazard plan and how would they have negatively affected the environment?
Tittel: Well, the example I would give is we have stream buffers along most of our high quality streams that feed our reservoirs, and they would virtually eliminate those buffers. Those buffers are up to 300 feet on each side of the river. By eliminating that it would mean you could develop close to the rivers and streams. You can actually dump storm water directly into the streams, you can build houses with septics 50 feet away, it eliminates protections for the headwater areas up on the mountains where the streams start. So, all the additional runoff from getting rid of those buffers will mean our pollution from septic and sewer and more flood waters going downhill faster.
Williams: Is that why various federal agencies also oppose the new rules?
Tittel: Yes. That’s the main reason why the EPA came out against the rule, as did the League of Municipalities and the Flood Plan Managers. FEMA itself came out against the rule because it would allow for development on piers, which violate FEMA rules, and would allow for more development in what are called flood hazard areas — areas that are prone to flooding. So that’s why those organizations came out against them.
Williams: What does a concurrent resolution mean and can the DEP still impose revisions?
Tittel: What it means is that the Legislature has found that the rules violate legislative intent — that they violate the state’s Clean Water Act and the state’s Pollution Control Act. So, it goes back to the DEP who now can address those concerns raised by the Legislature by either pulling this rule down or making changes to the rule that further go along with what the Legislature says. If they don’t, then the Legislature can then pass another resolution through both houses. It’s a simple majority with no governor signature.
Williams: Does the Legislature have the votes?
Tittel: Yes. It passed overwhelmingly and it was bipartisan. You just need a simple majority which is 21 votes and it got I think 24 votes. Yes, the votes are there and the ball is back in the DEP’s court to either help protect people from flooding and to protect their drinking water or side with special interests and the disruption of critical water supply streams.