LETTER NJDEP Enforcement Drops Dramatically under Christie Administration

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NJDEP has failed to release their Compliance and Enforcement Report for Fiscal Years 2013, 2014, and 2015 because they are hiding significant drops in oversight.  The New Jersey Sierra Club filed an OPRA looking for these recent reports, but we were told by the NJDEP that they no longer complete the reports. Then we had to OPRA and use the DEP’s Dataminer database to retrieve all of the different findings to generate our own report. Even though the Christie Administration has failed to release the data, the New Jersey Sierra Club found DEP reported findings for site inspections and enforcement actions, which shows a very disturbing trend. The DEP failed to publish data online for investigations, which we believe is because they did not complete them.

Based on NJDEP’s online database, total enforcement actions issued from 2008 to 2013, fell by 77 percent from 29,579 to 6775.[1] Lisa Jackson was the NJDEP Commissioner in 2008, which is why we had picked that date. She left in 2009. Site inspections have seen an 80 percent drop since Christie has been in office from 2011 to 2014, falling from 60,234 to 11,991.[4] 

“The Christie Administration has sided with special interests over holding polluters accountable. This is an administration that has failed to release their Compliance and Enforcement report for three years in a row. The purpose of this report is for transparency and accountability to see what the Office is up to. By withholding this information, just like DEP, they are looking the other way when it comes to enforcement. The consequences of weakening oversight are more pollution in our environment,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Our findings have shown significant drops in enforcement actions and inspections, while investigations have not even been reported. When you cut back on enforcement, you end up with more violations, because violators area less likely to be caught. When DEP says there are less inspections because there are less violations, it is actually the opposite. If you don’t put the “force” in enforcement, you end up with more pollution and environmental problems. As violations go under-reported and unchecked, you end up with more disasters. Look at what has happened in Newark with the lead contamination found in our schools. Lack of testing and oversight has put our kids’ health in harm’s way. Just because they aren’t catching anyone, it doesn’t mean violations are not happening. What we don’t know can and will hurt us.”

According to the NJDEP, enforcement actions are considered are the documents issued to violators that spell out the details of one or more alleged violations, any steps needed to correct them, any penalties, and the schedules for compliance and/or penalty payment.[1]

“Under the Christie Administration we have seen a 77 percent drop in enforcement actions from 2008 to 2013. These actions include violations for polluters that have contaminated our air and water. If polluters are let off the hook without being penalized, then the people of New Jersey are left to suffer. Offenders are more likely to do the right thing if they know they will get caught, but if there was a problem at a plant it isn’t likely they will fix it without knowing there is a penalty. It is like if you knew there wasn’t a cop around, so you are more likely to speed. If there is more enforcement, that means better operations, maintenance, and compliance,” said Jeff Tittel.  “Fewer enforcement actions in wetlands may mean more destruction of wetlands and more flooding. In hazardous waste, less enforcement and site inspections may mean more toxic sites later. There may be more chemicals that put people’s health at risk in our drinking water for decades without being analyzed. Without enforcement of the solid waste program we may see more illegal dumping.”

Almost all programs have seen a major decrease in enforcement actions for the past ten years including air, hazardous waste, land use, pesticides control, solid waste, water quality.[2]

“At one time, people who receive permits were called permitees, then they were called responsible parties. Now under the Christie Administration, they are called clients. It is clear with the drops in enforcement, the Christie Administration works for the polluters not the public. If you look at permits at the DEP that have been given, it’s like a Who’s Who of campaign contributors. Under Bob Martin, DEP enforcement and inspections are down 40-60% and they have the lowest levels of staffing ever. Parks and falling apart, while the Christie Administration is trying to privatize Liberty State Park and log private lands,” said Tittel.

Site Inspections are defined by the NJDEP as compliance evaluations conducted through site visits. The most common example is the physical inspection of a facility ensuring compliance with rules, permits or approvals from the department.[3]

“Site inspections have seen an 80 percent decrease during Christie’s terms in office and they have also decreased in almost every program area. Inspections keep regulated entities on their toes and are an important deterrent.  If they think they are going to get inspected they are more likely to follow their permits and environmental laws.  If they do not think they will be inspected they are more likely to take shortcuts,” said Jeff Tittel. “Fewer site inspection means beaches are more polluted and the public does not receive notice that they are swimming in an area that is harmful to their health. Lack of inspections and enforcement at sewer plants will mean more water pollution.”

Investigations are typically unplanned as a result of a citizen complaint.[4] Between 2005 to 2011, investigations dropped by 10,226. We are concerned that investigations could have plummeted to zero in 2013 and 2014, given the NJDEP has not reported on them.[5] Fines collected at the NJDEP have also dropped significantly. Between 2008 fines collected and 2006 fines estimated: air pollution dropped by 86 percent, wetlands by 58 percent, hazardous waste by 32 percent, laboratory by 63 percent, parks management by 59 percent, pesticide control by 70 percent, Radiation Protection by 32 percent, and Community Right to Know went from $60,000 to $0.[6]

 

“The DEP has turned Right to Know into Right to “NO,” but failing to provide investigations for 2013 or 2014. We do know that under the Christie Administration investigations dropped 47 percent from 2005 to 2011. If they are no longer reporting on investigations, they might not be conducting them at all. Investigations are important because they respond to citizen complaints who are usually the first to be aware of an environmental problem. Based on the budget from 2008 and 2016, DEP has decreased the number of fines issued in Air Pollution, Wetlands, Hazardous Waste, Pesticide Control and Parks Management. This is as a result of not inspecting facilities. In 2016, the DEP has not even collected any fines for Right to Know,” said Jeff Tittel. “By not releasing the annual reports, we do not even know the amount of water quality investigations, or beach monitoring. When the regulated entities are less inspected, investigated and issued violations it can lead to more pollutions and disasters because people tend to get lax.  If they think there is a cop on the beat, they will be more observant and efficient.”

New Jersey still does not do proper monitoring after it rains and only tests beaches on Monday with equipment that takes three days to get results instead of updated equipment that could give results in a few hours. This could be impacted thousands of people who recreate and swim on our beaches and bays, but do not know that there is a dangerous level of bacteria.

 

“If a violator does get caught, under the Christie Administration, you can go to dispute the claim, and even negotiate it. Under DEP Transformation if you report a violation you do not necessarily get an enforcement action or fine.  If you do you get cited, you can use the money to fix the problem even if you created it.  They also allow alternative compliance such as planting trees instead of fixing the problem. This is a lack of enforcement and chance to them let off the hook, but somehow if they catch you, you are still likely to get off the hook,” said Tittel.

In recent years DEP has issued a Notice of Violation to sites for accepting waste that exceeding their limits, but without new information we don’t even know who is receiving violations.

“There are real consequences to weakening enforcement that will affect public health, safety and the environment and have real impacts for the people of New Jersey.  By not having the reports and withholding information, then the public cannot hold the DEP accountable for a lax in enforcement. That is why the Legislature required these reports and why our report is so disturbing,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Environmental protections are being gutted in the name of red tape.  As inspections and violations are down, the DEP is rewriting key regulations to weaken protections. This is part of the Christie Administration’s weakening of over 40 years of environmental protections. The Assistant Commissioner of enforcement used to head of Island Beach State Park. Maybe he is still on vacation at the beach? That is why we are calling on the legislature to do an oversight hearing because the DEP have not released the data on compliance for three fiscal years.”

The New Jersey Sierra Club’s findings can be found attached as well as the e-mail and letter from NJDEP saying they no longer conduct Highlights Reports or investigations.

Enforcement Actions and Inspections summaries can be accessed online via the NJDEP’s Data Miner application at http://datamine2.state.nj.us/dep/DEP_OPRA/EnfSummaries.htm.  NJ Sierra Club Staff had difficulty receiving data with time-out errors on the site so they also filed an OPRA.