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Trenton Wurlitzer Was Fully Engaged Yesterday

Christie DEP Spin Swallowed By Lapdog Press

A Do Nothing Legislature

Green Mafia Self Dealings

Three actions in Trenton yesterday provide perfect examples of how the completely broken system we call government, media, and environmental lobbying operates.

Let’s take a look at each and excerpt specific examples of systemic failings.

1) Passaic River Settlement- Its All spin, All the time – and it almost worked

[Update: 9/17/14 – This Bergen Record followup story proves my point – but of course Scott Fallon and his editors never – ever! –  read Wolfnenotes! Mr. Fallon told me so!

The Christie DEP issued the usual self congratulatory press release yesterday announcing a major $190 million settlement of Passaic River cleanup litigation.

As usual, the release was highly selective in presenting a set of facts to spin a very favorable story.

That  kind of over the top spin has become routine after almost 5 years now, so one would assume that their credibility would be almost zero and reporters would be skeptical and do their homework to get the story right, particularly a big story like this.

One would be wrong.

Both the Star Ledger and the Bergen Record posted seriously flawed stories shortly after the DEP press release was issued. Both stories were virtually transcribed, based on the DEP press release.

Both stories were highly favorable, had dramatic pro-DEP headlines, ended with a critical quip by Jeff Tittel, and missed the real story, which is Gov. Christie’s diversion of the settlement money to pay for corporate tax cuts.

Revealing – but not admitting – they got the story wrong and badly incomplete, both stories were later updated, apparently on the basis of a critical statement by Deb Mans of NY/NJ Baykeeper.

So after 5 years of the Christie administration’s pro-corporate environmental record, and repeatedly being spun and at times lied to by the DEP press office, the press still went with the story in the DEP press release.

Did reporters and their editors really think that Christie DEP would hammer a corporation and promote environmental and public health investments? The exact opposite of what they’ve been doing for 5 years now?

And they apparently think that journalism, e.g. researching and fact checking a story, consists of a phone call to Jeff Tittel.

NJ Spotlight, an independent outlet that has a professional environmental reporter and is not driven by the race to get it published first, got the story right this morning.

This crap happens all the time. But the media mistakes based on lies and spin are rarely caught and corrected like this.

[update: At least the Star Ledger clearly notes and makes the story update transparent. In contrast, while the Bergen Record story notes two updates, it is impossible to understand the substance of those updates or view the original story. Orwell’s memory hole phenomenon.]

2) Flooding Risks – Status Quo with a Bright Red Bow 

The Senate Environment Committee heard and released an important bill that purports to mandate that DEP update flood hazard maps. (see S308)

We’ve been writing about this issue for a long time, most recently, see:

So, the release of the bill is a very good thing, right?

Wrong! – and here’s the rub:

The Christie DEP strongly opposed the bill, based on cost. According to the OLS fiscal note:

  • According to informal information provided by the DEP, updating the delineations of flood hazard areas and floodways would be a major undertaking involving a significant cost to the department that could amount to millions of dollars annually. 

So how did the bill address the cost issue and pay for the map updating?

Did it require that the cost of the program be included in permit fees and be borne by developers seeking flood hazard permits?

Did it establish a new funding source?

Did it just flat out mandate that the maps be updated and require the DEP to find the money from somewhere else in the DEP budget?

Nope – none of the above.

It simply ignored the issue by adopting the Assembly compromise by inserting this amendment into the bill:

The department shall, within the limits of funds appropriated or otherwise made available therefor, update delineations of flood hazard areas as appropriate as provided in subsection b. of this section.  

Legislators know damn well that there will not be a special line item appropriation in the budget next year for updating flood maps. And nothing in the legislation would suggest they will or require that they do so.

No legislator banged the table and pledged to fight for this money.

The DEP can now point to the lack of a special appropriation to ignore the law.

Both the legislature and DEP appear to have done something good, but nothing actually changes, while the flooding risks get worse.

And none of this got reported anyway.

This crap happens all the time.

3) Prescribed Burns – It’s About Protecting the Bottom Line

The Senate Environment Committee heard and released a bill to promote prescribed burns on public and private lands. (see S2012).

We’ve written about and testified in opposition to this bill (see this for details, which I will not go into here):

I want to highlight two things that show systemic flaws:

A)  A private citizen – not a lobbyist or environmental group member – testified in opposition to the bill.

The citizen objected, among other things, that people negatively impacted by the burning and smoke were not provided public notice (which could allow avoiding and getting away from the smoke) or given an opportunity to object.

Senator Codey expressed a concern about that, noting that the land use law requires notice about small things, like building a deck on a home.

Ed Wengren from the NJ Farm Bureau testified in support of the bill. Based on Senator Codey’s concerns, Chairman Smith was essentially forced to ask Wengren point blank whether notice was provided to nearby land owners and municipal officials.

He either did not know exactly what the notice requirements were – in which case he should have said “I don’t know” and just shut up – or he misled the Committee by implying that notice was provided and spinning about the notification practices under the current program.

DEP’s representative was asked the same point blank question. At least he had the integrity to say he didn’t know the details, at which point Chairman Smith demanded that he make a phone call to his DEP associates and find out.

That almost never happens – DEP is almost never called to account. And I have never seen the Chairman direct DEP to immediately provide a response like that.

This rare drilling down all happened only because  Smith wanted to move the bill (Smith’s “Forest Stewardship bill also involves prescribed burns); because Senator Codey raised the concern, and because the Farm Bureau and DEP badly bungled the issue.

So, this episode points to several flaws: 1) citizens’ valid concerns are rarely listened to and acted on – in this case they were and the bill was amended. This is the exception that proves the rule; and 2)  lobbyists routinely either don’t know what they are talking about or mislead and are never called out for it nor is their credibility impaired for it (unless they are private citizens or Tea Party or Americans for Prosperity).

B)  NJ Audubon testified in support of the bill.

They cried crocodile tears for the people and property that were at risk from wildfire, and repeated all the myths about fire suppression as the cause of this risk.

Audubon then justified their support on the basis of promoting habitat for wildfire dependent species.

Wow, so Audubon is looking out for people and wildlife habitat, and this bill would promote additional protections, right?

Not really.

You see, Audubon, private landowners and DEP don’t need this bill to conduct prescribed burns when necessary.

Its all about money – not fire risks or habitat.

Audubon never mentioned the cost and availability of insurance and that liability thing. Or their financial interests in the “relief” provided under the bill.

You see, the NJ Fire Wardens and DEP Forest Service already have the authority to conduct prescribed burns to reduce legitimate fire risk and promote habitat.

The the real issue is that private landowning conservation groups – like Audubon and NJCF – and private landowners – like Farm Bureau members – are either unable to get or must puchase costly insurance.

The bill provides a waiver of liability so they don’t have to spend the money to get proper insurance for an inherently dangerous activity.

They mask this financial interest in all sorts of BS about reducing wildlife risk and enhancing habitat.

And no one even mentions this, surely not the media.

And this self dealing under cover of conservation happens all the time – I call it the Green Mafia.

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