HACKENSACK, N.J. — The federal government is again criticizing a New Jersey bill that would further delay the implementation of water-quality rules and make it easier for builders to construct housing in undeveloped areas.
Should it pass this week in Trenton, the legislation would continue a five-year delay of regulations that were meant to protect drinking water supplies by limiting sewer lines and septic systems on more than 300,000 acres across the most densely populated state in the nation. Supporters, including many of the state’s business groups, have said that it could spur millions of dollars in the construction industry.
But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency thinks the delay puts drinking water in jeopardy. In an e-mail sent Thursday to several state senators, the EPA’s top official for New Jersey and New York, Judith Enck, urged the legislators to vote the bill down and “take all appropriate steps to accelerate, and not further delay, the planning and management processes necessary to protect the state’s vital and precious water resources.”
The New Jersey Builders Association says the bill is vital to the industry’s recovery from the 2008 real-estate collapse.
“Without an extension of the law, the threat of withdrawal of sewer service areas will resurface and will create considerable angst for the business community,” Robert Fallone, the association’s president, told a state Senate committee recently.
Home building has been steadily recovering from the collapse, which led to the lowest amount of residential construction in the state since World War II. Through October, 20,051 housing units were started in 2013 — the most since the pre-recession days of 2007.
Environmentalists slammed the bill, which was co-sponsored by state Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Wood-Ridge.
“This legislation will undo years of programs that have protected New Jersey’s waterways,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This legislation is a giveaway to developers at the expense of our drinking water. This legislation will mean more sprawl, more loss of open space and increased water pollution.”
The issue dates to 2008, when state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Lisa Jackson approved rules to curtail development by limiting sewer lines and septic systems on more than 300,000 acres across the state.
The rules required counties to redraw planning maps to restrict sewer line extensions in wetlands, endangered-species habitats and land near pristine streams. They also restricted septic systems in areas without sewers.
Counties were supposed to implement their plans in 2009, but that deadline was twice delayed.
A similar bill was passed by the legislature three years ago to delay those plans, but Gov. Jon Corzine (D) vetoed it in one of his last acts in office. A few months later, Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s administration issued an order delaying the implementation of those plans. A top DEP adviser called the rules “fundamentally flawed.”