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Environmentalists charge New Jersey DEP budget a disaster

stream061009_optBY TOM HESTER SR.
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM

Environmentalists and activists with what is called the Better Choices Budget Campaign warned Wednesday that cuts to the state Department of Environmental Protection's proposed 2009-10 budget could have significant adverse effects on New Jersey's natural resources, slow down the permit process for small businesses, and pose a threat to public safety.

"When you look at what's happened at the DEP, the only conclusion you can draw is that Trenton has declared war on the environment," said Jeff Tittel, New Jersey Sierra Club director and a member of the two-year-old Better Choices Budget Campaign.

Cuts totaling $60 million amount to a 25 percent reduction in environmental funding and will affect all of the department's areas of responsibility, including cleanup of the state's 20,000 toxic sites and maintenance of parks and open spaces, the activists charged.

Among the proposed reductions are DEP water quality grants that would be cut from $75.8 million to $14.9 million. The grants provide funding to cities and towns and non-profit groups for improving water quality, historic preservation, shore protection and solid waste management. Funding for environmental improvement projects would be reduced from $221 million to $77 million. The DEP's operating budget will be reduced to $216 million from $277 million. Natural resource management funding would be cut by one-third from $83 million two years ago to $58 million.

Many of these reductions come from diverted fees and other DEP revenue to elsewhere in the Corzine administration's $28.6 billion budget. While the budget estimates $410 million in DEP revenues, it allocates $50 million less to the department for expenditures.

Tom Vincz, a Treasury Department spokesman, said the environmentalists are playing with numbers. He said the DEP budget is down by $64 million for the 2009-10 budget because corporate business tax revenue, which provides much of the funding is down by $43 million. "There are no programmatic impacts because departmental operations funded through the tax already have significant balances,'' he said. "Debt service paid on DEP-associated general obligation bonds is down $17 million because they are being paid off. Debt service is included in their (the DEP) departmental funding total and has nothing to do with operation or program funding.''

The environmentalists and activists charge the decreases are part of a continuing trend of underfunding environmental protection in the state over the last five years. Reductions in funding for the DEP have been used to justify a number of steps environmental advocates believe are advantageous to polluters and harmful to the public.

The activists also pointed to the recent closure of the Division of Science and Research as an example of DEP's decline. They said, as an example, as late as March, the division found that a toxin located in sites throughout Hudson County, chromium-6, was even more dangerous than previously understood. They said findings from the draft report will likely lead to adjustments in site cleanups for dozens of locations in Hudson County.

The Division of Science and Research was downgraded from full division to an office with 20 workers, well short of the 80 staffers it had a decade ago. In testimony before the state Senate Budget Committee, Acting DEP Commissioner Mark Mauriello listed the change as a cost saving measure.

The DEP's inability to adequately oversee the state's 20,000 toxic sites directly led to the passage of legislation in May which forfeits its authority over the cleanup of many toxic sites in favor of private consultants hired by the polluters themselves. The activists said a 2006 study of a similar program in Massachusetts showed that most contaminated20sites ostensibly cleaned by private contractors had cleanup and reporting errors.

The activists also said that despite earlier assurances by the Corzine administration that funding for site remediation would be maintained to allow staff to deal with the most complex sites and recalcitrant polluters, support for site remediation will be halved from $77 million to $38 million in the impending budget.

"The current budget makes disproportionate, dangerous and entirely unnecessary cuts to environmental protection,'' said David Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation. "Scuttling the DEP science division and having polluters instead of professionals working in charge of toxic clean-up is just wrong. Polluters should be paying their fair share.''

The environmentalists and activists maintain that the proposed 2009-10 budget cuts would necessitate further staff reductions that could inhibit the DEP's ability to perform basic functions like maintaining the quality of air and water or issuing permits to small businesses and infrastructure projects.

The activists said a 2008 report from the diverse 24-member Permit Efficiency Review Task Force cited the massive reduction in DEP staff levels as a factor in the increasingly lengthy permit process. They said with the state set to receive $1.5 billion in funds from the 2009 federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the DEP's responsiveness will be crucial to making sure those funds are used in a timely and appropriate fashion.

The Better Choices Budget Campaign urged Gov. Jon Corzine and legislators to consider adopting a revenue plan that would generate an estimated $240 million in new funding that could mitigate the cuts to the DEP and other state programs. Among the campaign's proposals are: Increasing income taxes on those making above $300,000 per year to 8.5 percent, doubling the current surcharge on the corporate business tax from 4 percent to 8 percent, and tripling fees on SUVs and vans weighing over 5,000 lbs from $84 to $252 for vehicles less than two years old and from $71.50 to $214 for older models.

"Increasing fees on gas guzzling, polluting SUVs would bring in $140 million in new revenue that could be used protect programs critical to the quality of life New Jerseyans have come to expect, while at the same time protecting our environment,'' said Eva Bonime, Better Choices Budget Campaign coordinator. "It's the fiscally and ethically responsible thing to do."

The Better Choices Budget Campaign, formed last year, represents 41 organizations including the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, New Jersey Policy Perspective, New Jersey Tenants Organization, New Jersey Environmental Federation, and the Sierra Club New Jersey.

The DEP did not have an immediate response to the activists' statements.

 

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