The Legislature’s Time Is Better Spent Conducting Oversight Than Passing Environmental Bills For Christie’s Veto Pen

February 9th, 2016 No comments

Use Subpoena Power and Hold Oversight To Expose Failures

After six years of Christie’s systematic rollback, it’s time to account

Don’t wait for a Flint-like disaster to occur

[Update: 2/12/16 – This was not my recommended priority target, but nonetheless a good first step!

~~~ end update]

The first two hearings of the new Legislative session by the Senate Environment Committee – largely repeated by the Assembly Environment Committee – focused on a slew of bills that Gov. Christie has vetoed; e.g. the TMDL bill for Barnegat Bay; allocation of open space funds, promotion of offshore wind, et al.

The formation of a coastal public access Stakeholder group to develop new legislation is also likely to be blocked by the Gov. if its recommendations stray beyond his flawed DEP regulations the Legislature just unwittingly unconditionally authorized.

I can understand the partisan political motivation behind that – it makes Democrats look pro-environment and the Gov. and Republicans look bad –  but it is a total waste of time.

  • The Democrats lack the votes to over-ride the Gov.’s veto –
  • There is no evidence that the Republicans will break loyalty to Christie –
  • There is no reasonable expectation that Christie will reverse policy course –
  • It gives DEP and BPU free hands to continue the status quo and puts no pressure on DEP’s actual implementation and enforcement of environmental laws
  • environmental groups are limited to sound bite media tactics, not policy advocacy
  • there is no opportunity for actual democratic engagement in policy

Passage of good environmental bills this session does not lay the political or policy groundwork for the next Administration or Legislature, if only because it fails to garner sufficient public attention and media coverage to generate public support and momentum towards consensus on reforms.

And there is a big negative downside risk that these tactics could backfire, as the press and public become even more cynical about partisan motivations and lose more confidence in the effectiveness of the Legislature to actually govern.

Instead of this legislative strategy and waste of time, the Legislature could use its oversight powers far more effectively.

If legislators rolled up their sleeves, focused on the substance, and called DEP to account for the Christie policy in a series of oversight hearings, a number of very good things would emerge;

  • flaws in Christie policy would be exposed
  • people and the press could learn that policy has consequences for people’s lives
  • DEP would be held accountable and be less brazen in their rollbacks
  • a focused and substantive policy agenda would begin to emerge for the next Administration
  • the Legislature’s credibility would be enhanced
  • environmental groups would be provided a platform for advocacy

I suggest a series of oversight hearings conducted between now and June passage of the budget on the following policy topics:

1. Status of implementation of the Global Warming Response Act in light of recent science

2. BPU Energy Master Plan and Renewable Energy and Effects of Deregulation

3. Adapting to climate change

4. Status of Clean Water Act programs

5. Status of Clean Air Act programs

6. Status of DEP Enforcement

7. The future of regional planning in the Pinelands and Highlands

8. Urban NJ and environmental justice

9. Status of drinking water programs

10 Status of hazardous waste, RTK, TCPA, and toxic site cleanup

The Legislature should wield subpoenaed power to compel the Christie Administration’s participation.

Those kind of hearings could begin to expose policy decisions – like in Flint Michigan – that put the future of the planet and people’s health at risk.

People and the media could get a better understanding of how policy and regulatory decisions in Trenton impact their lives – and directly participate in the policy deliberations!

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“Amusing Ourselves To Death”

February 8th, 2016 No comments
Pripyat, former Soviet Union

Pripyat, former Soviet Union –

Pripyat (UkrainianПри́п’ять, Prýp’jat′RussianПри́пять, Prípyat′ About this sound Pronunciation) is an abandoned city in northern Ukraine, near the border with Belarus.

Named after the nearby Pripyat River, Pripyat was founded on 4 February 1970, the ninth nuclear city in the Soviet Union, to serve the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.[2] It was officially proclaimed a city in 1979, and had grown to a population of 49,360[3] by the time it was evacuated, a few days after the 26 April 1986 Chernobyl disaster.  ~~~ Wiki


To bookend these stunning photographs – which depict similar disasters and provide stark illustrations of the collapse of civilization, just at different rates –  let me just present the Foreword to Neil Postman’s 1985 prescient book Amusing Ourselves To Death – Public Discsourse In The Age of Show-Business:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

While I think Huxley was right, I certainly don’t think Orwell was wrong.

Iconic photo of the NJ Shore, post Sandy. This image no doubt influenced NJ Gov. Christie's nostalgic and childlike response.

Iconic photo of the NJ Shore, post Superstorm Sandy. This image no doubt influenced NJ Gov. Christie’s nostalgic and childlike response and the public’s gullible and magical thinking.

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An Artful Dodge On Lessons of Flint For New Jersey

February 8th, 2016 No comments

Where Have They Been As Christie Privatizes, Deregulates, Cuts Budgets, & Ignores Environmental Justice?

While I tried to convey the context and implications of the USGS dual sexed fish study, I’ve been laying low and waiting for someone to either explain the Flint catastrophe or opportunistically use it to call for reforms.

Rutgers professor and former DEP manager Dan Van Abs has risen to the occasion today in a NJ Spotlight Op-Ed:

First off, Mr. Van Abs should be applauded for making the effort to learn and share the lessons of Flint.

That effort contrasts with the stunning silence and abject failure of leadership by NJ DEP regulators, private water companies, water professionals, academics, and public officials in local, state and federal governments who are responsible for managing NJ’s drinking water.

But let’s not get carried away with praising Mr. Van Abs for what should be a moral responsibility and duty to speak out against gross injustice and wrongdoing.

Praise noted, let me now expand upon and point a finer point on some of these issues raised by Van Abs.

In comments on a Jan. 22., 2016 NJ Spotlight story, I noted:

The Christie DEP policy and response to drinking water issues is no different than the response of Flint Michigan.

There are striking parallels:
1) obsession with costs over public health
2) scientific and regulatory decisions made by incompetent, untrained, and inexperienced government officials
3) denial and downplaying of the problem
4) failure to seriously listen to the public
5) forcing what should be state decisions to the local level
6) politics and anti-government ideology infecting science and regulatory policy decisions

But, upon reflection, I left some big things off that list, like:

  • privatization (like Gov. Christie’s Executive Order and legislative initiative, which were sold as a cost cutting option, and not to provide cleaner and safer water)
  • anti-Democratic and racist State control (like we see in many poor and black NJ cities, including Newark, Camden and Atlantic City)
  • austerity (like Gov. Christie’s veto of new revenue measures and cuts to state government)
  • anti-regulatory ideology (like Gov. Christie’s Executive Orders $1 – #4).

Since I wrote those comments, even more damning facts have emerged that make the situation worse than I had imagined at that time and go far beyond what Mr. Van Abs calls the “bad” scenario, i.e. “the total collapse of the regulatory system for Flint.”

Evidence has emerged that shows the Governor’s Office and state regulatory officials not only knew about the problem for many months and swept it under the rug, but that they intentionally failed to respond, while at the same time taking steps to protect State employees from drinking water risks.

The selective protection of state employees reminded me of the Paulsboro toxic train derailment, when the DEP official would not send DEP emergency response staff into the accident scene due to high levels of toxic gas. Or of the armed State Park Police officer assigned to patrolling the lobby of the DEP building in Trenton.

They take care of their own.

I won’t go into details here, but note that Van Abs pulls his punches, which is troubling in two distinct ways: first, as a University professor, Van Abs enjoys the safe employment perch,  intellectual freedom, and responsibility of a truth telling institution, the Academy.

Second, Van Abs describes himself as a “former regulator”, a position from which he gained “inside” special knowledge that is not available to the public, which he has a duty to share.

While Van Abs correctly noted ethical and moral failures in Flint, as a former regulator he fails to out the skeletons he knows exist in NJ’s drinking water closets.

Bones from those closets most recently emerged in the release of the USGS study that found dual sexed fish, reporting on more delays at the NJ Drinking Water Quality Institute, and DEP’s release of the Clean Water Act mandated Statewide Water Quality Report.

Water resource professionals in NJ know full well that the public has been drinking those same endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that poison the dual sexed fish the USGS found; that USGS has studied EDC’s since the late 1990’s; and that US EPA has done nothing to regulate to protect consumers from those harmful exposures to EDC in their drinking water.

Van Abs is not only silent on opening this can of worms, he actively perpetuates the problem, e.g. note that when he mentioned that Camden had secured an alternative water supply source to dwindling groundwater, he identified the supply as “surface water”.

The “surface water” in question was the Delaware River – a river that is probably not as polluted or corrosive as the Flint River, but a river nonetheless.

The Delaware is also a river that receives millions of gallons per day of wastewater discharge from sewage treatment plants that spew all sorts of EDC’s and other unregulated contaminants into the river. Those chemicals then pass through conventional drinking water treatment systems and go directly to the bodies of consumers, including the developing fetus’ of pregnant women.

The Delaware is not alone as a water supply source that is polluted by hundreds of unregulated chemicals and EDC’s: so too are the Passaic, Ramapo, and Raritan rivers.

Like Van Abs, I too am a “former regulator”, but in contrast, I’ve made numerous efforts to share inside knowledge and concerns about NJ’s drinking water, many summarized in this recent post.

That includes mention of the policies of Governor Christie, the political power of the pharmaceutical and chemical industries to derail regulation,  and the policy failures of the DEP and EPA.

But the flaws in Van Abs’ piece are more serious than technical obfuscations and failures to out the skeletons in the Gov.’s Office and DEP’s closets.

There is a smug and self serving CYA  operating in how Van Abs chooses to not disclose the fact that he and his Dodge Foundation funded flunkies have focused on NJ’s urban water issues since the outset of the Christie Administration.

Yet, despite this well endowed white bread effort, they have completely failed to focus on the issues bought to the fore in Flint Michigan, including: structural racism, poverty, environmental injustice, austerity, unregulated chemicals, endocrine disrupting chemicals, river water quality, wastewater treatment plants,  childhood lead exposure, lack of adequate treatment of drinking water, or a host of related urban water and public health issues.

They have mis-focused and ignored critical issues, and for self serving reasons or rank cowardice.

On top of those failures, they have failed to criticize or effectively oppose any of the Christie Administration’s systemic rollbacks of drinking water and clean water protections.

Instead, they had focussed on “combined sewer overflows”  and the costs and methods of financing infrastructure deficits and pet project, like oyster restoration, including advocating a gentrifying and racist urban redevelopment agenda as the means to finance the program.

All that failure is masked beneath the surface of Van Abs self serving missive on the lessons of Flint Michigan.

Let me close by repeating the frustration and disgust of my prior post on the USGS dual sexed fish study:

Finally, I must note that NJ environmental groups have largely abandoned this kind of traditional meat and potatoes work on clean water, DEP regulation, and facility permits, and public health risks from toxics.

The abandonment began long ago (see: Clean Water Anyone?) – no one showed up!

Environmental groups have been manipulated by Foundation grant money that has diverted them from these controversial issues and instead been funded to work on politically safe issues that don’ threaten powerful chemical and pharmaceutical industries and their friends in State government, like sustainability, the Delaware Watershed (Wm Penn and Dodge Foundations) and the Dodge Foundation funded “The Raritan Initiative”, which Rutgers has shamefully joined as well.

You simply do not see well informed and hard hitting critiques like this anymore – they have been defunded by the Foundations and abandoned by the environmental groups.


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Expanded Logging On Sparta Mountain Could Contribute To Widespread Ecological Harm

February 6th, 2016 No comments

USGS Study in Catskills Found Logging Caused 100% Trout Mortality

Stream and aquatic life impacts not adequately considered by DEP

Source USGS

Source USGS

(this is part five of our look at the DEP’s proposed Sparta Mountain “Forest Stewardship Plan” which would significantly expand logging on the mountain. Here are links to read part one and part two and part three and part four).

A study by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) on the impacts of logging on the ecological health of nearby Catskill forests highlights flaws of DEP’s proposed “Forest Stewardship Plan” for Sparta Mountain, including failure to map watersheds and streams or adequately consider adverse impacts on the exceptional water resources of the Highlands forest.

Instead of a rigorous scientific analysis of impacts on water resources, the plan selectively summarizes some of the large body of scientific research on the effects of logging, suggesting relatively minor impacts that can be mitigated by BMP’s. The DEP plan concludes (@ page 13):

  • Clear-cutting generally resulted in short-term water yield increases due to decreased evapotranspiration, but returned to pre-harvest levels within a few years as regeneration became established.
  • The greatest sediment load problems arose from poor road construction delivering suspended material directly to streams. Overland flows were rarely observed.
  • Selection method harvesting had no obvious effect on watershed stream temperatures. In clear-cuts where no vegetated buffer was maintained along streams, stream temperatures generally were a few degrees higher during the growing season and a few degrees lower during the dormant season, but returned to pretreatment levels with 3-5 years. When a 50- foot-wide buffer strip was maintained, clear-cutting had no effect on stream temperature. This would imply that subsurface groundwater down-slope of a clear-cut treatment with a vegetated buffer would also maintain a stable, pre-harvest temperature.

But the DEP’s research summary curiously ignores classic research on nutrient budgets as well as a recent 2008 United States Geological Survey (USGS) study of the ecological impacts of logging in the nearby Catskills which found widespread impacts on forest soils, soil and stream water chemistry, forest regrowth, and aquatic communities, see:

The USGS study noted that – just like the NJ Highlands – the Catskills provide critical water resource values and are extremely sensitive to the effects of logging;

The Catskill Mountain region of southeastern New York (fig. 1) is about 85 percent forested and contains six reservoirs that are the principal drinking-water supply for New York City. Land-use managers in the region need forest-harvesting guidelines that will ensure the continued vigor of the forest-products industry while preventing water-quality degradation.

The USGS study highlights the narrow focus of the tradition approach to forestry and explicitly rejects that in favor of an ecosystem health framework;

A Changing Approach to Forest Management

Traditionally, forest-management decisions have been based mainly on the observed physical condition of trees in a forest stand. A new, broader perspective on forest management has emerged in recent years from the field of watershed biogeochemistry, the study of biological and geochemical processes and element cycling within a given drainage basin (fig. 2). A biogeochemical approach to forest management takes into account a suite of interrelated indicators of ecosystem health.

With respect to water resources, we’ve previously noted that logging harms sensitive cold water trout streams by increasing sediments and stream temperature.

Russia Brook, one of the streams on Sparta Mountain is a DEP designated trout production C1 stream. DEP’s Water Quality Standard for C1 streams is “no change in existing water quality” and C1 streams are protected by 300 foot wide buffers. As we’ve previously argued, the DEP Forest Stewardship Plan does not meet these two standards for C1 streams.

But, in addition to increases in sediment and temperature,  the USGS study documents an additional serious impact resulting from the toxic effects of increased stream concentrations of nitrate and aluminum from logging runoff.

Shockingly, USGS found that clear cuts caused 100% mortality of trout:

Clearcutting caused a large release of nitrate (NO 3-) from watershed soils and a concurrent release of inorganic monomeric aluminum (Alim), which is toxic to some aquatic biota. The increased soil NO 3- concentrations measured after the harvest could be completely accounted for by the decrease in nitrogen (N) uptake by watershed trees, rather than an increase in N mineralization and nitrification. The large increase in stream water NO3 – and Alim concentrations caused 100-percent mortality of caged brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) during the first year after the clearcut and adversely affected macroinvertebrate communities for 2 years after the harvest.

The amount of tree biomass that can be removed without causing a sharp increase in stream-water NO3 – and Alim stream-water concentrations is unknown, but probably depends on the history of forest-disturbance and acid deposition and the level of soil acidification. Results of this study indicate that macroinvertebrate and brook trout communities were sensitive to clearcutting and that deer browsing may affect water quality by suppressing forest regeneration and nutrient uptake. Further studies of selective harvests could identify the harvesting threshold below which changes in water quality and soil chemistry are minimized, and nutrient retention is maximized, thus reducing the damage that logging can inflict on stream and aquatic communities.

USGS found that not only trout were likely harmed:

Therefore, the toxic conditions produced by the clearcut would probably have killed other fish species that may have been present, such as slimy sculpin (Cottus cognatus), and the brook-trout mortality reported here may represent only some of the detrimental effects that clearcutting could have on fish communities and the downstream ecosystem. 

USGS emphasized that current science and data are not adequate to establish a threshold below which logging will nt harm sensitive and high quality water resources:

Further research is needed to define the harvesting threshold below which soil nutrient loss is minimized to limit the adverse effects of logging on stream-water quality and aquatic biota.

The USGS findings are troubling and suggest sufficient flaws in the DEP’s forestry practices to suggest that they be halted until DEP develops an ecosystem health based program to characterize, monitor and assess the broader set of  ecosystem and water resource  impacts of current forest management practices, including multiple “stewardship” logging projects in the Highlands.

This program would include establishment of baseline conditions of forest ecosystem health, including “existing water quality” and a rigorous program to monitor these conditions as well as the cumulative impacts of logging on Highlands forests and water resources.

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The “Crime” At Fenimore Landfill Was Lax Oversight by Christie DEP

February 3rd, 2016 No comments

DEP Commissioner Martin’s fingerprints all over Fenimore Landfill disaster

Martin Ignored Warnings From State Commission on Investigation Report

Christie Attorney General Indicts Landfill Owner & Operator

Christie DEP Commissioner Bob Martin

Christie DEP Commissioner Bob Martin

DEP emails and documents strongly suggest that it was Gov. Christie’s regulatory policy, DEP Commissioner Martin’s strong armed top down intimidating management, and politics – not staff incompetence and bungling – that pressured DEP staffers to cut corners to promote the SEP disposal and redevelopment project. […]

Email from Jane Kozinski of the DEP to Richard Bernardi of SEP discussed the viability of the Fenimore project and scheduled a meeting with the Governor’s office ~~~ Bill Wolfe (May 22, 2014)

The owner and operator of the Fenimore Landfill, Richard Bernardi, was just indicted for financial deception, according to an NJ.Com story just posted.

According to the story, Bernardi simply duped those strict DEP regulators and investigators at the AG’s Office, who now are, like Claude Rains, shocked that gambling was going on at the landfill:

Bernardi allegedly diverted more than $5 million in tipping fees — fees paid to SEP to deposit materials at the landfill  — for “personal and unauthorized uses,” in violation of a requirement that most of the funds be held in an escrow account to assure the landfill was properly closed, the Attorney General’s Office said.

The landfill closure account Bernardi allegedly raided was required by and supposedly monitored by DEP.

In addition, NJ has a law commonly referred to as “A-901″ designed to conduct background checks to assure the integrity of the solid waste industry. DEP explains:

  • Any solid waste transporter wishing to engage or continue to engage in the collection, transportation, and/or disposal of any solid waste generated by another person(s) must file a Disclosure Statement in accordance with N.J.A.C. 7:26-16.3 so that the transporter may obtain a “license” as defined at N.J.A.C. 7:26-16.2. Only those solid waste transporters who have filed their Disclosure Statements, met the Solid Waste Licensing requirements, and passed an Integrity Review by the New Jersey State Police and Attorney General’s Office receive an approved “license” to transport solid waste in New Jersey.

The State Commission on Investigation (SCI) December 2011 Report titled “Industrious Subversion” issued to Gov. Christie and DEP Commissioner Martin apparently fell on deaf ears.

The SCI warned Martin about how that A901 law was being circumvented:

Over the years, lawmakers, regulators and law enforcement officials repeatedly have taken aim at organized crime and other criminal elements in New Jersey’s solid waste industry. Garbage mobsters have been prosecuted and jailed, their waste-hauling cartels have been dismantled, and special licensing requirements have been established – all in an effort to prevent convicted felons and other unscrupulous individuals from systematically infiltrating and subverting what collectively constitutes one of the State’s largest commercial enterprises impacting the health and quality of life of the citizens of New Jersey. […]

The State Commission of Investigation, which first uncovered significant criminal intrusion into solid waste as far back as the late 1960s, has found that the industry today remains open to manipulation and abuse by criminal elements that circumvent the State’s existing regulatory and oversight system.

Martin not only ignored the SCI’s warning. He actively promoted the Fenimore Landfill project.

Internal DEP emails document that Martin’s policy of slashing red tape regulations and promoting “customer service” led directly to the Fenimore Landfill disaster.

Specifically,  DEP emails show that early on, DEP’s longtime Chief of Staff, Gary Sondermeyer, reached out to the landfill owner to suggest that

he find the “Environmental Transition Team” Report prepared for Governor Christie and his Executive Order #2 (Red Tape Task Force) (sic) in order to pursue a “different way” of future permitting to provide incentives for “green projects” 

Keep in mind that this landfill owner was a convicted felon, barred by NJ law from the solid waste industry by the A901 law.

Sondermeyer went further to tout not only Gov. Christie’s new regulatory policies, but to praise Christie’s new DEP Commissioner. According to the Report, Sondermeyer wrote:

Bob Martin as the new Commissioner of the DEP is a “strong manager” supportive of renewable energy projects, “the likes of which we never had” 

One email from Martin’s Assistant Commissioner documents direct involvement by Gov. Christie’s Office:

Email from Jane Kozinski of the DEP to Richard Bernardi of SEP discussing viability of the Fenimore project and scheduled meeting with the Governor’s office 

There are other emails that show incompetence and inappropriate intervention in DEP regulatory reviews – or worse – by Martin’s unqualified  political appointee Cindy Randazzo.

After what was, at best, gross incompetence and failed policy, for the Christie AG to indict Bernardi, while ignoring the huge involvement by DEP, is the height of hypocrisy.

But more could be involved. As a friend just wrote me:

One could easily argue the DEP negligence as criminal, yes?  It’s a complete lack of oversight.

Amen, bro.

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