On his first full day in office, Governor Chris Christie signed eight Executive Orders, four of which pose a serious threat to environmental protections. These overly broad Executive Orders give government officials the authority to roll back important rules and regulations that protect our air and water and prevent sprawl.
Environmental regulations and protections of health and safety may now be weakened as a result of these Executive Orders. They give too much authority to government officials, who would undo environmental protection in the name of red tape. It's unfortunate that the Governor has already decided to side with special interests instead of the public interests.
When Chris Christie was running for Governor, he committed that his Administration would be transparent. Yet, these EOs were written behind closed doors without public scrutiny or input.For years, builders and special interests have been pushing to weaken environmental protections. The language in the Executive Orders is very similar to the rules they have been proposing in this assault on the environment. These EOs apply not only to the DEP but also to the Highlands Council, Pinelands Commission, Meadowlands Commission, and the State Planning Commission.
While we believe the DEP needs to be more effective, these Executive Orders don't accomplish that. They only serve as a giveaway to developers and special interests.
The four Executive Orders that have environmental implications include:
1. Implements a 90 day freeze on environmental regulations and sets up a "red tape" commission. We consider this scary. This is what the Bush Administration did -- first they froze regulations and then tried to repeal them. The freeze may violate the Administrative Procedures Act.
2. Authorizes tremendous powers to commissioners to waive compliance with rules and regulations. Under this EO, the DEP or DCA commissioners could waive compliance of rules and regulations that are thought to be an undue burden. This could lead to a serious abuse of power that will disregard crucial environmental protections. By waiving penalties and violations, this EO will weaken environmental protections and violate certain environmental laws. It also opens the doors for politics and abuse.
This EO also creates a "Time of Decision," which grandfathers an application from the time it is made despite changes in rules or regulations. That means if someone files an application that may not even be complete, that application is bound by the current rules, even though new rules are often put in place to better protect the environment. Additionally, there is a Cost Benefit Analysis for creating rules but health impacts are not part of that analysis.
This EO allows violations of rules that are considered burdensome to be waived and calls for the rewriting of these rules. While this EO talks about an appropriate balance when writing rules, it doesn't address goals when protecting the environment. It calls for the business community and academia to look at rules in advance, but not the environmental community or citizens. It says rules should be flexible and balanced, but the purpose of environmental rules is to protect public health and safety. It calls for justification when state rules exceed a federal requirement but New Jersey is not Kansas and we have more environmental problems than Minnesota.
3. Sets up a committee to review and remove rules that are considered an undue burden to business. The Sierra Club is concerned that the environmental community would not be represented on the committee reviewing the rules. This could simply be a stalking horse to pull back environmental protections. Many of our rules and regulations come from federal or state laws and this EO could interfere with them.
4. Prohibits government programs that are unfunded mandates to towns. We're concerned that mandates that are established for the protection of public health and safety will be subject to this EO. For example, if the standards for the amount of arsenic in drinking water were to change from 10 parts to million down to five there would be an additional cost to taxpayers for water filtration. This would be considered an unfunded mandate, meaning towns would not have to remove the arsenic to safe levels. Many of our mandates, like stormwater rules, come from the federal government. Will towns not have to follow stormwater rules because it an unfunded mandate?
It is concerning that parts of these EOs will undermine environmental protections and violate state and federal laws that are designed to protect the environment and public health. They could very easily become an abuse of power by government officials and agencies. Furthermore, these EOs may exceed the authority that these officials have, since EOs cannot trump rules, regulations or state and federal laws.
We are troubled by what we see so far and hope the Christie Administration can better explain how these EOs will be carried out and what their impacts will be. We also ask the people of New Jersey who disagree with these Executive Orders to call the Governor's office and ask for them to be withdrawn or amended.
Jeff Tittel is the Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.