Environmentalists want DEP waiver rule pulled; DEP disputes their claims

A group of environmental organizations Tuesday called on the Christie administration to cancel a proposal that they claim will allow developers to bypass regulations if they can convince the Department of Environmental Protection that the rules are burdensome or unnecessary.

The groups, including the N.J. Sierra Club, the N.J. Highlands Coalition, and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, called for a reversal of the waiver rule proposed by DEP.

“We see this rule as being a blank check to polluters and special interests,” said Jeff Tittel, head of the N.J. Sierra Club.

With a DEP hearing scheduled for Thursday, Tittel said they wanted to draw attention to a waiver rule that he fears is one of the most far-reaching threats to the environment in recent history.

In essence, the environmental groups argued Tuesday that what previously were inconveniences for developers will now be labeled “hardships’’ that will generate a waiver from DEP, sometimes with insuffient review being done by DEP staff.

They said that in the end, the waivers will be used to bypass established law, remove public comment from the process, and allow developers to receive waivers from compliance with tougher state laws in exchange for compliance with federal requirements that sometimes are not as strong.

The groups expressed fear that environmentally sensitive areas such as the Pinelands and the Highlands could be placed at risk.

Advocates such as Tittel, Elliott Ruga of the Highlands Coalition, and Dena Mottola Jaborska of Environment New Jersey said that in some cases, waivers will be requested and granted before the public has a chance to comment.

Tittel said they also are exploring possible legal options to prevent the waiver rule.

Other groups taking part in the effort to block the waiver rule include the Work Environment Council, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, the American Littoral Society, the Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association, the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, and the N.J. Environmental Federation.

DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese disputed much of the environmental groups’ contentions.

He said the process of requesting a waiver will absolutely be transparent, with filings posted on the DEP web site and everything being on the public record.

He also disputed that the effects of the waiver will prove far-reaching. He said the waiver will be reserved for unusual situations, and that it won’t be used to allow applicants to avoid more strict state rules in favor of more minimal federal ones.

“There won’t be anything done behind closed doors,” he said.  “The goal is to try and do something that makes common sense, and that makes government work, and at the same time ensure strict compliance.”

In addition to the hearing Thursday, DEP will accept written testimony until May 6.

Peviously DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said the proposed rule is consistent with the approach to a “common sense” interpretation of rules while still safeguarding the environment.

The intent of the DEP waiver, the department has stated, is to assist developers where rules conflict or are considered by DEP unduly burdensome.

Environmentalists want DEP waiver rule pulled; DEP disputes their claims