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Monday, June 21, 2010

Contaminated Oysters or Toxic Politics

Or is the DEP Trying to Hide its Abysmal Environmental Enforcement
Record Behind a Small Shellfish?

As the Baykeeper Emeritus, and a NY/NJ Baykeeper Trustee I feel I have an obligation to comment on NJDEP Commissioner Martin’s recent pronouncement that may end more than a decade’s worth of oyster research, restoration, education, and community involvement in most of New Jersey’s northern estuaries. This decision is untenable given the Department’s previous support of Baykeeper’s oyster restoration program. It is also disturbing, but not surprising that New Jersey’s very inexperienced Environmental Commissioner has caved in to a minority of special interests within the Department and issued an unwarranted, misguided, and scientifically indefensible “rule like,” directive to attempt to stymie research, habitat restoration, and oyster gardening specifically targeting Baykeeper. Can you imagine the fuss, the threat of law suits, and the public relations tsunami that would result if the same Commissioner arbitrarily and capriciously revoked a legally issued permit issued to a major developer and political donor?

I understand the Department’s reluctance to allow edible seafood to be grown in marginally polluted waters, however those waters remain polluted in significant part because of lack of action by the NJDEP to bring the targeted bays and tributaries – and the entities polluting those waters, into compliance with the fishable/swimmable standard of the Clean Water Act. Oysters and Baykeeper did not pollute those waters and the program to restore oysters there should not suffer as a result of DEP’s inability or unwillingness to bring legal and regulatory action necessary to stop pollution and restore the water quality and habitats in the State’s northern and urban estuaries.

Particularly troubling to me is the apparent lack of initiative on the part of the Department to address permitting of private docks in shellfish harvest areas, its ineffectiveness in addressing toxic site cleanup in the Raritan River, Raritan Bay, and Arthur Kill, and the permitting of residential projects under CAFRA along the Bayshore of Raritan Bay that would never be permitted anywhere else in the coastal zone. Additionally, allowing polluters like the Middlesex County Utilities Authority to close almost 1/3 of the Bay to shell fishing as a result of its gigantic and loosely regulated discharge pipe is morally unacceptable. The NJDEP must begin to evaluate its priorities and its willingness to serve the public good. Should a reckless discharger get more deference than a popular, scientifically verified, community supported restoration project? Should a developer be issued a CAFRA permit that does not conform to the rules? Should a deep pocket polluter get a pass on paying for clean up and compensation for natural resource damages while the Department spends time obsessing about Baykeeper’s economically and environmentally positive research efforts?

Why is it that at every forum in the NY/NJ Harbor Estuary, the NJDEP is the only federal or state agency that is actively opposed to large scale restoration of oysters in the Estuary? Why is it that Delaware Bay, an equally urban estuary has a subsidized oyster restoration program? Why is it that southern New Jersey shell fishing interests appear to have the support of the Department while northern fishermen rarely if ever, get support? Why is it that at a time when both the Governor and the President are calling for green jobs and green infrastructure projects, the one “shovel-ready” project in the State – Baykeeper’s oyster restoration project is being targeted in such a mean spirited way? Any politically astute and straight thinking person knows the answer – the Department is fearful that its lack of enforcement of clean water standards, its flaccid CAFRA permitting program, its under par toxic site cleanup program, its apparent disinterest in extracting natural resource damages from polluters of the Raritan River like National Lead, its multi-year lack of preparedness to meet FDA’s patrol criteria, and its shell fish program’s bias will be exposed.

I challenge the Commissioner to redirect the efforts of the Department to address urban river and estuary pollution, to be aggressive in addressing permit violations at sewage treatment plants, to reconfigure the Department’s contaminated site clean- up program so that sites actually get cleaned up, to stop issuing permits for development in wetlands and flood plains, and to develop incentives and penalties to address non-point source pollution and combined sewer overflows by mandating, rather than suggesting, that municipalities adopt Low Impact Development plans to manage storm water runoff.

And finally, let’s put the resources of the Department, behind pollution abatement and habitat restoration initiatives like Baykeeper’s oyster research, education, and restoration project that create jobs, and bring money into the State, rather than spending tax payer funded time in a tough budget period, figuring out ways to kill it.

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