Riverfront Park in Newark was built with Natural Resource Damage funds
Riverfront Park in Newark was built with Natural Resource Damage funds

The Trump administration’s proposal to cut funding for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will directly impact federal safeguards for clean water, air and natural resources in this state we’re in. The proposal would roll back decades of progress in protecting public health and environmental quality.

Here in New Jersey, we too are debating the impact of cuts to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection proposed by Gov. Chris Christie’s administration. And since New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection gets significant funding from the EPA, the impacts to New Jersey would be magnified.

Over the past two decades, staffing at the Department of Environmental Protection — an agency entrusted with safeguarding our state’s clean water and air, protecting wildlife and providing public recreation at parks and natural areas — has been sharply reduced year after year.

From a high of 4,000 employees in the 1990s, the New Jersey DEP operates with less than 2,700 today. The result is less capacity to carry out the agency’s many functions, from stopping polluters to protecting threatened and endangered species to keeping bathrooms open at our parks.

Gov. Christie’s proposed budget would cut DEP staffing even further.

The New Jersey League of Conservation Voters testified before the state Assembly that New Jersey is put at risk by the proposed funding cuts. “These reductions in capacity are dangerous and weaken the department’s ability to protect our natural resources, water and land,” according to Drew Tompkins, public policy coordinator for the League.

The governor’s proposed budget is even more alarming, he added, because it doesn’t take into account reduced revenue from the federal government.

This one-two punch from the Christie and Trump administrations would worsen what is already a difficult situation. New Jersey is the nation’s most densely populated state, with a history of industrial pollution, including more Superfund cleanup sites than any other state. As a coastal state, New Jersey is also on the front lines of climate change and sea level rise.

To make matters worse, the Christie administration’s raiding of dedicated funds has depleted funding for clean energy and the cleanup of contaminated sites.

The state’s Clean Energy Fund takes in about $350 million a year from surcharges to consumers’ gas and electric bills, and is supposed to be used to improve energy efficiency and promote clean, renewable energy sources. But much of this fund has been diverted to fill gaps in the state budget’s General Fund.

Senator Bob Smith recently proposed a constitutional amendment that would stop the diversion of money from the Clean Energy Fund.

The Clean Energy Fund isn’t the only pot of money raided by the Christie administration. The governor’s current budget would divert of millions of dollars meant for “natural resource damage” environmental cleanups and damage restoration.

In natural resource damage settlements, polluters pay to compensate the public for the loss of natural resources. For example, if a lake is contaminated, the public loses the ability to fish and swim there. The settlement fund is supposed to fix the those kinds of damages.

The governor’s budget language restricts only the first $50 million of natural resource damages settlements to environmental restoration and cleanup. The remainder — which can add up to hundreds of millions of dollars — can be diverted into the General Fund.

Public outrage over diversions of natural resource damage settlements prompted the Legislature to place a constitutional amendment question on this November’s ballot to stop the practice. The ballot question, if passed, will be too late to affect this year’s budget.

But in the meantime, the Senate and Assembly are each working on their own appropriations budgets. The two budget versions must ultimately be reconciled and handed back to Christie in time to meet a budget adoption deadline of June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.

It’s critical that the Legislature take action to modify Christie’s budget. Our legislators should take this opportunity to send a strong message to the public and this year’s gubernatorial candidates that New Jersey must protect clean water, clean air, land and the health of its citizens — and push for a clean energy future. We cannot depend on the EPA to do it for us.

For information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, go to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

Michele S. Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and Treasurer of the New Jersey LCV board.