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Political Influence at DEP Now Something to Brag About

[Update – today’s Asbury Park Press story reports that not everyone’s corrupt – I certainly am not saying or implying that here. There are plenty of very good people in government – its just that they are working in a corrupt system]

We have long complained that science, permitting, and enforcement at DEP are routinely subject to inappropriate political influence by industry lobbyists, legislators, and local officials who intervene and pressure DEP to provide favors to special interests.

At best, these kind of political interventions at DEP skew priorities and create chaos in managing various programs at DEP.

Worse, they undermine the integrity of the agency and lead to the kind of severe abuses of the environment and the public interest we’ve seen at Encap, Petty’s Island, and scores of similar fiasco’s, most of which are not written about in the newspapers.

We have called for reforms at DEP to provide safeguards to restrict these abuses.

But both the problems we identified and the reforms we proposed have been ignored.

Despite numerous confirmed cases of political intervention at DEP (some of which that resulted in criminal convictions), and the fact that a survey of DEP employees found that “nearly three out of four employees believe that the “regulated community excessively influences DEP permitting, policy and enforcement decisions“, DEP officials, legislators and reporters continue to deny the problem and simply dismiss the claim as either unproven or an anomaly: the one bad apple excuse.

Ironically, the Christie Administration’s DEP Transition Report focused on these problems, which is perhaps the only policy we can support in that Report, which correctly stated:

Furthermore, inappropriate political interference from all levels of government has at times, influenced decision making. This has tied the hands of staff trying to issue permits and consequently, the hands of those both trying to develop and redevelop NJ as well as environmental organizations trying to improve the quality of NJ’s natural resources and historic sites.

But even that one shred of positive was washed away last week by events at DEP.

First, DEP Direct of Land Use Management Tom Micai testified in the criminal corruption trial of former Assemblyman Van Pelt. Micai oversees CAFRA, wetlands, flood hazard, and Highlands permitting.  According to the May 5 Asbury Park Press:

Micai testified about the process that one must undertake in order to obtain certain environmental permits. Under cross-examination, he acknowledged it is not uncommon for local officials and lawmakers to contact him about expediting certain projects. Micai said he tries to accommodate those requests.

We thought that DEP’s own testimony confirming our claims of systemic abuses at DEP would trigger  some press attention and response from DEP Commissioner Martin to defend the integrity of his organization.

We were wrong on both counts.

But it gets worse.

Instead of keeping the fact of routine political interference at DEP a deep dark shameful secret, Martin just flat out bragged about it in a press release!

In a May 7 press release, Martin said:

Although Exelon has been working with the DEP on the issue, the state does not believe the actions to date have been timely or extensive enough to have adequately protected the water supply. Recent inquiries from legislators and the news media have caused us to re-evaluate the Exelon contamination.

“We have determined there is a need for more immediate action to compel Exelon to act,’’ said Commissioner Martin.

Martin’s “determination”  – by his own words – was based on politics and designed to avoid bad press.

So much for Martin’s Mantra Talking Points about basing DEP decisions on “facts” and “science”, most recently regurgitated last week:

I have committed to base final DEP decisions on a thorough review of all available science,’’ said Commissioner Martin. “So it is very important that our facts are accurate and we are transparent when having a public dialogue on any issue.”

And I won’t even touch Martin’s absurd and deeply hypocritical transparency claim.

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