Christie Restarts Water Board
For more than three years, environmental groups complained that Gov. Chris Christie's administration had killed off an independent state board that makes recommendations on levels of pollutants allowed in drinking water. They cited it as an example of the Republican governor's withholding state board appointments to control policy debate.
This week, the administration defused some of the criticism when it revealed that the New Jersey Drinking Water Quality Institute is being reconstituted with the addition of three new appointees. It will start meeting again in April.
The Drinking Water Quality Institute, formed under a 1983 law, has long been watched closely by industry and environmental groups.
Its last meeting was in September 2010, when a subcommittee proposed that limits be considered on how much perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA -- a chemical used to make everything from Teflon to waterproof clothing -- should be permitted in the water supply.
The request upset the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, a group that represents manufacturers that use chemicals. The month after the proposal, the council complained to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The Associated Press recently obtained dozens of communications between the industry group and the DEP concerning drinking water standards and the institute. The correspondence showed that the Chemistry Council repeatedly sought and received meetings with officials to discuss the institute's structure. The AP also requested similar communications between the DEP and environmental leaders, but the state said there were no similar letters from environmentalists.
Both the council and the DEP denied in interviews this week that the complaint had anything to do with the halt in the institute's work.
DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese said vacancies on the 15-member board were not filled mostly because the state was busy dealing with the aftermath of a pair of damaging storms -- Irene in August 2011 and Sandy in October 2012.
"There have been some environmental groups yelling about this for the last year and a half, and they see this as a nefarious plan to not care about water quality," he said. "We've made some progress in water quality."
There is currently no enforceable limit for PFOA in New Jersey, but the state set an advisory limit of .04 parts per billion back in 2007. That guideline is 10 times as restrictive as a federal advisory that came out in 2009.
"It was clear the administration didn't want to develop a standard for PFOA," said David Pringle, the campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation, a former member of the institute and a former Christie supporter. "The easiest way to do that without embarrassing the administration was for the institute to not meet."
Ragonese said Thursday that the institute' agenda is still being planned, and he did not know if the group would be asked to look at PFOA. He said the state has been waiting for additional guidance from the federal government before setting limits on the chemical. Last week, however, the state posted a notice seeking public input on regulation of a related chemical, PFNA, which has been found in the water supply in Paulsboro.
While the institute was left to languish, the DEP ramped up a different panel started when Gov. Jon Corzine was in office: the Science Advisory Board. One advisory board committee is tasked with studying water quality issues. But unlike the institute, it is not required by law and its meetings are not open to the public.
The institute is one of nearly 500 boards, commissions and authorities to which New Jersey's governor is supposed to make appointments. Some Democratic lawmakers have complained that Christie has not made appointments to the Study Commission on Violence created by a law he signed in August requiring the commission be seated within 30 days. And courts have blocked his effort to dissolve the Council on Affordable Housing.
In a letter to the DEP commissioner sent in October 2010, the Chemistry Council's executive director, Hal Bozarth, spelled out the industry's objections to the way the institute operated.
It called for "an open and transparent regulatory process, a reliable science-based process for the regulation of chemicals" -- one that would include earlier and formalized input from regulated industries.
The letter said the institute was not following sound science. As a prime example, he cited how a month earlier a subcommittee called for discussion on limits on perfluorooctanoic acid even though DEP scientists had not finished a review on the chemical.
PFOA emerged as a concern for federal environmental regulators in the late 1990s when researchers found it was creating developmental problems in laboratory animals and was being found in the blood of humans. In 2006, eight companies -- including three Chemistry Council members -- agreed to phase out its use by 2015.
One of the firms -- DuPont -- agreed to pay $8 million in 2011 to settle a lawsuit with residents of Salem County who complained of PFOA in their water. A company spokeswoman says DuPont no longer uses PFOA.
(Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)