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Private Water Company Executive Named Head of Delaware River Basin Commission

Professional History Raises Concerns

[Update below]

[Update: 3/26/14 – – NJ Spotlight does a story focused on outgoing Director Collier – hard hitting journalism it’s not, see:  DRBC’S OUTGOING DIRECTOR SAYS DELAWARE RIVER BASIN NEEDS STRONG REGULATOR.

The headline begs the question we discuss below. – end update]

I just read that Steve Tambini was named as the new Executive Director of the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), see: Basin commission names new executive director.

Tambini assumes leadership at a critical time, when the DRBC faces the hugely important and controversial issue of whether to make the current moratorium on fracking in the basin a permanent ban.

Predictably, Jeff Tittel of Sierra Club is on top of that issue and used the announcement to lay down a marker in calling for a permanent ban on fracking, joined by retiring Congressman Rush Holt (see:  Environmentalists, congressman call for fracking ban in Delaware River basin.

But the DRBC policy on fracking is set by the DRBC Commissioners – the Governors of NY, NJ, Penn, and Delaware, plus a federal Obama Administration representative, a slot filled by the US Army Corps of Engineers–  not Mr. Tambini.

Politically right now, it seems like the Gov.’s of NY and Delaware are supporting the current moratorium, while NJ and Pennsylvania are inclined to support fracking. While the Obama Administration is strongly pro-gas and fracking, it is not likely that they would break the deadlock among the DRBC states.

So, the focus for retaining the fracking moratorium or making it a permanent ban should be on the Governors, not Tambini.

While the DRBC Executive Director can have a significant influence on the technical aspects of how fracking is regulated, the big policy decision is about whether fracking should be banned. Tambini could have only minimal influence on that decision.

For a host of policy, planning and technical reasons, all evidence suggests that fracking can not be effectively regulated. And even if it could be, fracked gas is another fossil fuel that must be kept in the ground, not burned.

But, aside from the fracking issue, Tambini’s appointment raised a whole bunch of red and yellow flags in my mind.

First, we have the revolving door and corporate power issue – Tambini spent his career in a private water company.  That raises a host of concerns about the influence of private corporations on regional water policy and the management of a public resource.

Tambini’s background experience is suggestive.

Tambini’s bio touts his work on the Tri-County Water Supply project. That project was primarily about: a) expanding demand, markets, and franchise areas; b) controlling allocation of water supplies; and c) regional growth and development. The groundwater depletion issue served as cover for that corporate profit and development driven agenda:

Prior to his current position as Vice President of Operations at Pennsylvania American Water, Mr. Tambini held important leadership posts at New Jersey American Water. He played a key role in the planning, implementation and regulatory approval for the development of New Jersey American’s Delaware River Regional Water Treatment plant and Tri-County Water Supply, which successfully addressed regional groundwater decline in South Jersey and continues to provide water supply to numerous N.J. communities in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester counties.

Second, Tambini is a trained engineer.

The underlying conflicts in many water resource management issues revolve around back end technical engineering approaches, versus front end public policy, ecologically informed, and regional planning driven approaches.

Placing a corporate engineer in charge of those regional planning and public policy issues is not a good sign, especially at a time when the Delaware basin is facing increasing pressures on water resources from regional growth and land use change, and adapting to the impacts of climate change.

Those challenges require vision, leadership, and commitment to public interest planning.

Third, Tambini appears to lack government experience.

The Christie Administration is the poster child for problems that emerge from installing private sector people in government management positions.

Fourth, Tambini’s touts his role on the NJ Water Supply Advisory Council. That is nothing to brag about, because the NJ Water Supply Master Plan is decades out of date and seriously flawed.

Last, Tambini is a graduate of Clarkson University. I began my education at Clarkson (it was a College back in 1975).  Clarkson has great hockey and is a very good technical school for engineers, but there’s not a lot of vision and broad training there.

Personally, I do not know Mr. Tambini. Of course, Tambini deserves the benefit of the doubt and I wish him well and hope I am proven wrong on all of these concerns.

[Update: 3/13/14 –  Just came across Tambini’s statement.

I always worry when people invoke their “values” as a qualification or virtue, and then don’t specify what those “values” are.

I find Tambini’s “respect for his employer” as an excuse for not making any public statements until he assumes office to be, at best, odd. That seems to be a misplaced priority – his first duty is to the public and to be accountable and accessible to the public. If he can’t honor that duty and work for his employer at the same time, he should resign or should have insisted that the announcement not be made until he was ready to assume the DRBC position.

More likely, it was simply an excuse to dodge the press – again, the red flags are set off. ]

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