The Fight for Pristine Drinking Water in the NJ Highlands
Eight years after the NJ Department of Environmental Protection revoked a sewage permit for a wild trout stream in the Highlands region, the agency suddenly reissued the discharge permit to the surprise of environmental organizations. The Highlands is an area stretching across northern New Jersey that is protected by the NJ Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act, state legislation passed in 2004. The permit allows the discharge of 100,000 gallons of treated sewer water daily into the Northern branch of the Rockaway Creek, which is a designated wild trout stream and home to 20 other fish species. NJDEP first issued the permit in the 1990s, but revoked it in 2006 after the stream gained new protections. On April 7, 2015, EELC appealed this right to discharge sewage into a protected stream on behalf of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, the Raritan Headwaters Association, the Township of Readington, and the Sierra Club.under the New Jersey Highlands Act, and after the permit went for years unused. Then, in an unexpected move, NJDEP reissued the permit in 2014.
From pristine forests to working farms, New Jersey’s Highlands Region contains some of the state’s most important natural resources. It supplies 5 million New Jerseyans, over half the state’s population, with reliable drinking water. That amounts to 770 million gallons daily! The disappearance of safe drinking water with increased and unplanned development would jeopardize the health of our citizens and our economy. Elliott Ruga, Policy Director of the Highlands Coalition, points out that, “Protecting these scarce and critical resources is in everyone’s best interest.” He adds that safeguarding the fresh drinking water, hiking trails and archaeological sites in the Highlands benefits everyone. Elizabeth Water Company, which sources its water downstream of the proposed site, is concerned that “dangerous discharges” from the project could have significant detrimental effects to those drinking the water.
Stringent environmental rules and regulations have emerged over the years to safeguard the Highlands’ resources. In 2004, the State created the Highlands Council to implement the Highlands Act, which prohibits sewage discharges in “protection zones.” A Regional Master Plan (RMP), enacted in 2008, carefully guides construction in the Highlands. Tewksbury demonstrated its commitment to environmental preservation by adopting a Conformance Plan in 2012, requiring the town’s future development to abide by the RMP’s protocols.
In 2014, the NJDEP instantly undid years’ worth of regulatory progress. Its decision was legally flawed. Aaron Kleinbaum, Executive Director of EELC, says that discharge from the development site would “undermine the resource protection goals of the Regional Master Plan,” which mandates maintaining or improving water quality. The agency ignored the Highlands Act’s requirements for regional planning. Explaining why the Highlands Coalition chose to engage EELC on this matter, Mr. Ruga writes, “It is beyond the pale that NJDEP, contrary to its own regulations, contradicting municipal zoning and ignoring the consent of the Highlands Council, has approved a sewerage discharge permit that defies all contemporary standards for land use in New Jersey. Truly, we have no choice but to challenge the approval in Court.” (Highlands Coalition, April 10, 2015 press release.)
Equally concerning is that the agency, which should protect drinking water, has lost the public’s trust by violating the protections afforded by the Highlands Act. The agency’s action has set a bad precedent for the public who invest time and money into environmental progress consistent with the RMP and the Highlands Act, only to face roadblocks and hurdles. Ruga adds that a legal victory over NJDEP is critical because “whenever a permit is authorized, it gives momentum to the developer.” If
NJDEP issues one permit, it will issue many more. The New Jersey Appellate Division heard oral arguments in October. Now, EELC and its clients await the Court’s decision.