An odd thing happened this week in the Legislature’s push to finally enact a water-quality bill that had been vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie in 2015. It stalled, in part due to opposition from Gov. Phil Murphy’s Department of Environmental Protection.
The meeting of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee itself had started on an unusual note, with DEP deputy chief of staff John Gray addressing the panel to say, in essence: Sorry for the last few years; we’ll do better under the new governor.
“I really appreciate just one or two minutes here just to really, I think, just kind of reset our relationship,” Gray said. “I think previously there was some strained relationships with particular committees or particular subject matters, in particular the environment, and unfortunately, how that transcended with a lack of direct engagement by the department.”
Gray said the new session means “new administration, new opportunity here” and a more proactive relationship between the two branches of government.
“That said, it’s always not going to be a lovefest,” he said. “As you’ll hear today, we do have some problems or some recommendations on bills, so just because we have a great, cozy relationship, hopefully, doesn’t necessarily mean we’re always going to be in agreement.”
Proving the point, Gray proceeded to persuade lawmakers to delay action on S74, a bill sponsored by state Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, that would direct the DEP to establish a maximum contaminant level for a particular chemical. The proposal is stricter than what the department wants.
The chemical in question is 1,2,3-trichloropropane. The state Drinking Water Quality Institute recommended a maximum allowable level of 30 parts per trillion in 2009, though it’s still not in place. The DEP says it will finally take effect by summer.
Singleton sought to compel the state to adopt the 30 ppt threshold in a 2015 bill that Christie vetoed. He now seeks an even stricter threshold of 15 parts per billion, which he says that is less aggressive than the 5 parts per trillion level adopted by California.
“The chemical in question here is a known carcinogen, and it’s been found to be present in several communities, especially in Burlington County,” Singleton said.
The carcinogen was found at elevated levels in wells in Moorestown, which has spent $8 million buying water from an outside source and installing temporary filters. It wants a standard in place so it can seek to recover the money from the old pesticide facility alleged to be the source.
Gray told the committee the state’s target is sufficient, and a second DEP official, Adriana Caldarelli, said the Drinking Water Quality Institute, which is a division of the DEP, doesn’t believe levels stricter than what it recommends can be reliably measured.
“The Office of Science at the Department of Environmental Protection, staff scientists reevaluated the number, and 30 ppt is absolutely the right number here in New Jersey,” Gray said.
Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, said 30 ppt would be an achievement, given that there isn’t currently a standard at all for 1,2,3-TCP.
“You can’t say: If it’s 30 why not 10? If it’s 10, why not 5? If it’s 5, why not 1?” Hart said. “Because the money that’s going to be spent there is not going to be spent on preventing lead from getting into our schools’ drinking water, which we know is a problem right now. Or radon being in drinking water, which we know is a problem right now. Or pipes in the streets that break every single day. There is only so much money.”
Singleton said that after nine years, it’s clear the regulatory process failed in this instance.
“Now folks are telling us we need to make a choice between whether we want lead in our water or 1,2,3-TCP, or whatever else that folks want to talk about,” Singleton said. “We’re trying to pick between contaminants.”
State Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, the environment committee chairman, suggested that Singleton try again to direct the Drinking Water Quality Institute to reexamine the issue and science, rather than have the Legislature specify a threshold. He said it might end differently than it did in 2015.
“You did it in the regime of the dark ages, all right?” Smith said. “I mean, it’s a new world. It’s a new DEP. It’s a new commissioner.”