Environmental groups and business interests squared off against each other Thursday over a proposed Department of Environmental Protection waiver rule.
The proposal, in which the DEP would have authority to waive an applicant’s compliance with rules deemed burdensome or in conflict with one another, is either an over-reaching threat to the safety of New Jersey’s air, water, and land, or an overdue bit of red-tape-cutting common sense.
Groups such as N.J. Environmental Federation and Pinelands Preservation Alliance argued the former at a hearing before an audience of more than 100 people Thursday, adding, among other things, that the waiver rule would place too much power in one agency’s hands, increase the workload of the department, exclude too much public input, and risk the environment in a densely populated state.
However, business interests have argued that New Jersey is a historically over-regulated state that strangles job growth and development.
Jeff Tittel, head of the N.J. Sierra Club, said at the hearing, “We are deeply troubled by this rule,’’ because he said it is too vague and has too much potential for abuse. He fears that it will lead to more sprawl and overdevelopment.
“We’re terribly worried that money and politics will corrupt the process more than it does now,” said Ben Forest of Clear Water of Red Bank. “I’m sure it will be abused.”
And David Pringle of the N.J. Environmental Federation said he feared that “The rules will encourage every applicant to seek waivers. It will increase the role of politics and decrease the role of science.”
Opposition also came from labor. John Pajak, president of the N.J. Work Environment Council, and a trustee of Teamsters Local 877, said the waiver rule will weaken protections in the workplace. “The waiver rule would endanger New Jersey workers,’’ he said, at a time when protecting the health and safety of workers should be paramount.
He said that any large company can afford to apply for a waiver, and it will be small businesses that will suffer and be unable to compete.
Support for the proposal came from business advocates. “Many of our large companies are sensitive to the environment,” said Michael Egenton, senior vice president of the N.J. Chamber of Commerce. “The state should have the ability to work with them instead of chasing them away. We’ve lost too many opportunities, lost jobs.”
He said small businesses don’t have the resources to deal with the litany of regulations in the state, and that this waiver rule will give them the kind of flexibility they need.
“This is something we’ve sorely needed for 20 years that I’ve been dealing with the DEP,’’ said Tony Russo, director of Regulatory Affairs for the Chemistry Council of New Jersey.
Jack Rafferty, former mayor of Hamilton in Mercer County, described himself as someone who supports the environment, but he also said he supports this rule as a compromise between environmentalists and commerce.
“We need to have jobs for people, we need to have stores so people can buy products,’’ he said. “I believe in regulations,’’ he said, but New Jersey is overregulated.
Testimony was heard from more than 20 witnesses, and written testimony will be accepted until May 6.