New Jersey’s environmental regulators have failed for nearly a decade to meet a legal requirement they provide a detailed written account for each year of enforcement actions against polluters of state waterways, the Associated Press has found.
The Clean Water Enforcement Act requires that by the end of March every year, the Department of Environmental Protection issue an enforcement report to the Legislature and governor. But none has been submitted since 2010, according to the agency’s response to an AP request under the state open records law.
The law was enacted in 1990 to establish mandatory minimum penalties for polluters who violate discharge limits and to add teeth to federal law.
The annual reports, which have been posted online, give lawmakers, the governor and the public an easy way to find out which companies have been deemed “significant non-compliers,” how many violations were committed, how much in fines were collected and how many criminal cases were pursued.
“For many, especially polluters, ignorance is bliss,” said Amy Goldsmith, state director of New Jersey Clean Water Action. “It’s important to do the reports because then you know the trends and what’s happening.”
Informed of the AP’s findings, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s office said the administration will work to have the reports published again.
They stopped being compiled after Republican Gov. Chris Christie took office in 2010 and budgets were cut. The department said in a statement the previous administration didn’t want to use agency resources on them.
But they also did not return after Murphy took office in 2018 with the support of environmental groups, who are now criticizing him for failing to increase resources for environmental protection.
A Department of Environmental Protection website called DataMiner allows the public to search for public documents that contain some of the information included in the most recently available report, though the information is not comprehensive.
Fine collections under the clean water law have gone down, according to an AP review of state budgets, falling 44% from $2.5 million in 2011 to $1.4 million in 2018.
In 2010, the state’s Division of Criminal Justice conducted eight investigations under the law, with two prosecutions resulting in fourth-degree violations that were settled through pre-trial intervention. The state attorney general’s office said it could not provide an update on how many criminal cases there have been since then.
Groups representing companies, public sewer authorities and others subject to the law say they’ve worked for years to come into compliance and have reduced the number of violations.
Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, which represents chemical, pharmaceutical and oil-refining industries in the state, said industry recognizes that any amount of materials being emitted is a waste of resources and energy. He said in an email that members are always looking for ways to reduce emissions.
Democratic Assemblyman John McKeon, who sits on the environment committee and is an ally of Murphy’s, said the environmental department is “playing catch-up” after eight years under Christie.
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