BY JEFF TITTEL
Governor Christie has opened a new front on his war on the environment with his appointments to the Highlands Council. The governor's appointments made to Highlands Council are clearly a message that he does not care about protecting the water supply of the people of New Jersey.
The governor should be ashamed of himself with the appointments he made for the Highlands Council. Not only do the vast majority of these appointees oppose the Highlands Act, but they also oppose the protection of our water as well. These appointments along with budgets cuts, other weakenings and attacks put the Highlands and our water supply at risk.
Many of the appointees have extremist views and have actively campaigned against the Highlands Act. For instance, the governor replaced Tracy Carluccio, an environmentalist, with Sam Race, an extremist. Not only has Sam Race opposed the Highlands Act, but his town council has refused to conform to the Highlands Plan and opposed other important regulations to protect our water ways. The majority of the people that have been nominated to the Highlands Council are leaders of organizations such as the Highlands Conservation Association, which is made up of land speculators and developers and the Farm Bureau. The Highlands Conservation Association, Farm Bureau and other organizations have sued to overturn the Highlands Act. Now they are being appointed to implement a law that they tried to get rid of. They will not try to implement the law they will try to overturn the law as members of the Highlands Council. Of the seven appointments, only one has an environmental background, Mike Sebetich.
Governor Christie did not appoint any elected official from Bergen or Passaic county. These are counties with elected officials that have constantly supported the Highlands Act. Not only are there no elected officials, but there is not one representative of Bergen County on the Council. Sussex County, which is only a quarter of the population of Bergen County, has three elected officials on the Council. Warren County, with only an eighth of the population of Bergen County, has two elected officials on the Council. The almost 900,000 people of Bergen County that depend on the Highlands for drinking water do not have one member on the council. With the way this council is set up they never will, which is not only bad for the environment, but bad for democracy.
The people of New Jersey should be alarmed that the governor is now skeptical about clean drinking water. The Highlands are a drinking source for 5.4 million people in New Jersey and one of the last areas of open space we have left. A clean water supply is vital to our state's economy, as our three biggest industries -- pharmaceutical, petro chemical, food production, and tourism -- depend on it to thrive.
A 2004 study by the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission concluded that if the Highlands were to be developed, it would cost $50 billion more to treat our water. This is just a continuation of the Christie attack on the Highlands. Highlands funding has been slashed dramatically — reduced from $12 million to $4.4 million in 2011. Governor Christie is cutting $18 million in grants for municipalities to help them conform to the Highlands Regional Master Plan. He is also cutting $12 million from the Highlands Stabilization Fund to towns in the Highlands to help meet budgetary shortfalls. Highlands Staffing will also be cut by $800,000, resulting in fewer staff people to help towns conform to Highlands Plan and to manage the Transferable Development Rights program. Removing the funding doesn't make sense unless the goal is to kill the Highlands Plan and weaken protections in the Highlands.
The Board of Public Utilities approved PSE&G's expansion of the proposed power lines through the Highlands and a second pipeline was proposed earlier this month. These lines will cut through the Highlands, not only leaving a scar on the land, but affecting our drinking water by going through the Monksville Reservoir and the Pequannock and Wanaque watershed. This pipeline will bring gas from the Marcellus Shale, threatening to destroy the Delaware River Basin because of all the toxic chemicals from fracking.
The Christie Administration may not outright repeal the Highlands Act, but it might restrict its implementation, eliminate its funds, stack the board with pro-development members and weaken DEP regulations, making it essentially meaningless. The Highlands Act was passed to protect the drinking water for more than half of the people in New Jersey, and Governor Christie's budget cuts and executive orders put that drinking water at risk.
The governor is playing politics with the drinking water for people of New Jersey. He would rather appoint people from special interests and political extremists to the Highlands Council than protect our drinking water. Some of the views of the people appointed would make the Tea Party blush. By the governor playing politics, he is not only affecting the environment and water supply, but the economy, as many of our industries are dependent on clean water from the Highlands.
Jeff Tittel is the Director of the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club.