Hearing casts serious doubt on DEP’s ability to protect health and environment
In articulate, substantive, and at times charming testimony, DEP Commissioner Lisa P. Jackson had the Senate Environment Committee completely under control on Monday. The Commissioner presented her 2008 priorities, and responded to mostly softball questions from the new Committee.
[Update: link to hearing transcript: http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/legislativepub/pubhear/sen012808.pdf
We invited public involvement and outlined our priorities in a Sunday post What are your environmental priorities for 2008?
Jackson outlined 5 priorities in extemporaneous testimony: 1) climate change; 2) update of the Water Supply Management Plan; 3) strengthening the toxic site cleanup program; 4) taking care of the “green side of the house” (natural resources) and 5) smart growth and regulatory reform at DEP. After questions by the Committee, she diplomatically added recycling as #6 in savvy deference to Chairman Smith’s recent legislative accomplishments in sponsoring laws to restore funding for recycling and development of a recycling program for electronic waste.
In a breath of fresh air, instead of spinning, she honestly acknowledged that the current version of the Highlands Regional Master Plan needed work. In a key concession, Jackson agreed with environmental critics that the science supporting the plan was not complete and inadequate. She conceded that DEP was broken – that DEP single objective permit programs operated “in silos” and as a result, failed to protect the environment. She pledged to fix these programs and integrate cross cutting concerns.
In a startling revelation than is certain to embarrass the Governor and set the stage for the upcoming budget battle, Jackson disclosed that the DEP had been cut deeply under her tenure; that she had lost over 200 employees; and that she lacked resources to accomplish important new programs, such as global warming. Those admissions did, however, come with some misleading statements that DEP information technologies and management reforms could “do more with less” and address the resource, funding and staff shortfalls.
In response to oversight questions about why fishing and hunting license revenues were declining – a question that could have prompted a technocratic defensive response – Jackson instead wisely offered the example of her own kids, who prefer video game versions to outdoor activities like hunting and fishing. Her personal warmth – and to be sexist, motherly worldview – effectively communicated a complex issue in human terms. And she prompted an outburst of laughter with her “wily coyote” wildlife management comment. Her immediate comeback quip “everything you need to know comes from bugs bunny” brought the house down.
But on a more substantive note, paradoxically the strength of her performance undermined the DEP’s mission to protect public health and the environment. This is because she put a very positive face on some deeply flawed policies, lack of funding, and poor DEP performance. Her testimony simultaneously disarmed critics, avoided problems that need to be fixed, and controlled and limited the agenda.
Listening closely to what Jackson said – and didn’t say – was deeply disturbing:
1) Jackson said nothing about environmental justice or urban environmental health. This silence was deeply disappointing, given that existing air quality a) violates federal standards for ground level ozone; b) exceeds EPA cancer benchmarks for a score of toxic air pollutants, and c) causes disproportionate health and environmental impacts in urban NJ;
2) Jackson dodged many land mines, including a) the need for more stringent regulation of industrial sources of pollution; b) tougher land use regulations to manage growth and stem continuing high rates of forest and farm land loses; c) stricter standards to reflect new science on cumulative impacts or children’s health; d) vigorous enforcement, or e) the need for additional funding.
3) Jackson backpedaled on the controversial Oyster Creek nuclear plant Clean Water Act permit, distancing herself from the former Administration’s draft permit that mandated cooling towers. At one point, she claimed that the ecosystem had adapted to the warm water discharge from the plant. The stage is set for DEP to fold on this permit.
4) On the issues she chose to discuss, Jackson made absolutely no substantive commitments (she did not commit to any firm dates for mandated reports, plans, regulations, funding, or permit decisions, etc). For example, the Global Warming Response Act signed by Corzine last July mandates an important plan on how to meet the emission reduction goals be submitted to the legislature by June of this year. Jackson not only failed to discuss the elements of that plan, she failed to commit to a date for completion or even acknowledge that the plan was to be submitted to the legislature (she mentioned the Plan being developed for the Governor). But here’s the law the Committee allowed her to tap dance around:
b. No later than June 30, 2008, the department, … shall prepare a report recommending the measures necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to achieve the 2020 limit. The report shall include specific recommendations for legislative and regulatory action that will be necessary to achieve the 2020 limit. The report shall be transmitted to the Governor, to the State Treasurer, to the Legislature pursuant to section 2 of P.L.1991, c.164 (C.52:14-19.1) and to the members of the Senate Environment Committee and the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee., (emphasis supplied. P.L 2007, c. 112) http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2006/Bills/PL07/112_.HTM
Some of the most interesting legislative oversight concerns were expressed by Senator Andrew Ciesla (R/Ocean) who criticized the lack of coordination and took a swipe at Corzine’s toll plan. Ciesla suggested that DEP and the Administration look to Europe for leadership on how to better plan and integrate transportation, land use and environmental concerns.
New Vice Chair VanDrew’s approach was disappointing, as he chose to focus on predictable narrow district or special interest concerns, including fishing and hunting fees; the need for a better “dialogue” between DEP and the business community; and beach replenishment.
As usual, listening to the environmental community testimony was like watching the herding of cats.
They were all over the map on dozens of individual organization based issues. Armed with the strong support of the public and motivated by the public interest, nonetheless they lacked a coordinated strategy or coherent message. The few new ideas and policy recommendations came from Mike Pisauro of the NJ Environmental Lobby, who praised the new ocean ecosystem based management policy; suggested the Committee explore legislation to implement the Precautionary Principle; and consider implementation legislation and DEP oversight to breath life into the NJ Constitutional guarantee of a right to a healthy environment for all citizens.
In contrast to the environmentalists, the usual suspects – lobbyists from the Chamber of Commerce, Business and Industry Association, and chemical – were far better prepared and on message.
Here are links to the NJ press coverage and a statement by Chairman Smith:
Open-space skimping assailed
Smith – Environmental Panel Hearing Offers Solid Direction For State
DEP chief outlines her goals, without funds to realize them Jackson says she must ‘do more with less’