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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.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Emancipation From Fossil Fuels a New Birth of Freedom

Dealing with the BP catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is not only a technical, environmental, economic and cultural problem, it is a moral problem. Moral problems require us to decide which solutions are “right” and which are “wrong.” The rightness and wrongness of a solution is not based on science but on a sense of justice and ethics and cultural values.

Thomas Jefferson said, “A nation as a society forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society.”

Robert Kennedy Jr. has posited that fossil fuels are the new slavery: morally and economically corrupt. He has said, “industry and government warnings about ‘economic ruin’ if we wean ourselves from fossil fuel dependence, should not be heeded because abolishing slavery did not cripple the British economy as was predicted. Instead of collapsing, as slavery’s proponents had predicted, Britain’s economy accelerated.” Vanity Fair, A Manifesto for the New President.

"In fact climate change is also the most vexed kind of moral issue, precisely because it is also about economics. It’s a debate that is, or should be, requiring us to make ‘moral’ decisions that are more likely than not to have a price tag attached. 200 years ago Parliament heard identical caveats during the debate over abolition of the slave trade. At the time of its abolition, the Slave Trade and its associated activities were reckoned by those opposing the Bill to account, quite astonishingly, for well over a quarter of this nation’s GDP – which helped drive one of the central arguments deployed by the anti-abolitionists – that over-hasty action could only prove ruinous for the nation’s economy…" Ahimsa Day Celebration October 15th 2008, Portcullis House, House of Commons, London, Keynote Address By Lord Puttnam

The morally abhorent practice of slavery was the cheap energy of the early 19th Century in the US, and it took a flawed but brave President to change entrenched policies. In 1860, our country was at a frightening and wrenching crossroads – to accept the line drawn of no new expansion of its morally corrupt energy source, slavery, and to commit to building America's future on a new economic footing.

So it is up to the engaged and informed people of this country and this American President to do the right and moral thing. Despite the fact that it might not be popular and might cause some campaign contributions to dry up – we are at significant historical moment like the signing of the emancipation proclamation. The proclamation that represented a shift in the war objectives of the North. It represented a major step toward the ultimate abolition of slavery in the United States and a "new birth of freedom.” Emancipation from fossil fuels will be such a “new birth of freedom” for the United States.

A century and a half ago, fossil fuels replaced slaves as the underpriced energy source driving American economic growth. And like slavery, our deep economic dependence makes change difficult, despite the incontrovertible reality that our fossil-fueled system is profoundly immoral.

In a story about a widowed fictional President who falls in love with an environmental lobbyist who is assured by the President that if she gets a fossil fuel bill with enough guaranteed votes he will send it to congress. Unfortunately the environmental bill is competing with the President’s own flaccid gun control bill. In the climax of the film the President and his advisors learning that he can get some congressman to support his bill puts the environmental bill “in the drawer.” In the confrontational scene the “President’s girlfriend,” as a smarmy opposing Presidential candidate calls her, is gathering her things and leaving the White House – the President explains that he needs to pass the crime bill and doesn’t want to lose her.

SHEPHERD: Sydney. Please. I don't want to lose you over this. SYDNEY: Mr. President, you got bigger problems than losing me. You just lost my vote.

President Obama’s supporters, many of whom now, according to a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, don’t think he is handling the BP oil disaster in the Gulf very well continue to be hopeful that the lesson learned about the “unholy alliance of the government and big oil” will result in more stringent regulations, but also a Climate Bill, that will actually make the US the leader in combating global climate change, our dependence on fossil fuels and big oil’s stranglehold on US energy policy.

We can hope that the administration has learned the lesson that there are no half measures with bullies. You either confront them or they continue to dominate the school yard. The President needs to continue lead the efforts in the Gulf to stop the gushing of toxic oil into the water column, and hold to his word that the “buck stops” with him and that the billions of bucks for clean up and compensation will continue to flow from BP to pay for the unprecedented environmental, economic, and cultural disaster in the Gulf will continue to flow unabated, for as long and as it much as it takes to make the environment and the community whole.

And as in the film, the President needs to put the present energy bill, one that will not do anything for climate change, one that will do nothing in the short term to avert disasters like the BP spill, and one that will do nothing to move us to an alternative energy future in the short term “in the drawer.” And be able to say to the American people, as the fictional President said to his girlfriend after doing the right and moral thing.

SHEPHERD: Sydney, I didn't decide to send 455 to the floor to get you back. SYDNEY: I didn't come back 'cause you decided to send 455 to the floor. American President, The (1995) movie script by Aaron Sorkin.

I for one want to come back. I believe that President Obama has an opportunity to not only do the right thing on energy and global climate change legislation, not because he politically needs to redeem himself on the handling of the BP disaster, but because he knows it is the moral thing to do.

It takes a look back at the past several decades to appreciate the true costs of burning fossil fuel: air, water, and soil pollution, environmental degradation, wars and military entanglements to protect access to the sources, transfer of American's earnings to foreign economies, political empowerment of those we buy from, and climate change.

Unfortunately, our individual pocketbooks don't feel the true costs of what it takes for Americans to enjoy the energy derived from a ton of coal, or a barrel of oil. And that's why we make so little effort to use it efficiently, conservatively, or wisely.

So it is up to our young, charismatic, troubled, and beleaguered President to speak to the Nation about emancipation from the morally unacceptable continued dependence on fossil fuels, to take a real climate change bill “out of the drawer” and do the right if not politically expedient thing.

Delaying real change is intolerable. The global warming legacy will be forever irreparable and unrecoverable. What we eat, where and how we live, where, what, and when wars will be fought, and whose lives will be changed forever. Again, like during the debate over slavery, we face an undeniable moral imperative.