DEP in another development flap

New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection appears to be joining the ever-lengthening list of governmental agencies set on destroying what they are supposed to protect, with increasingly concerning implications for Sussex County.

septic-system-450.jpgThe DEP is considering scratching a rule designed to protect the Highlands region, of which Sussex County is a major part.

The 800,000 acres in North and Central Jersey designated as Highlands supply water to half of the state, a water supply that environmentalists say is already threatened by the possible construction of the 128-mile PennEast natural gas pipeline from Pennsylvania to Monmouth County.

Now DEP is considering removing a rule that limits the density of septic tanks—and thus increases the amount of land available for construction—in sensitive areas of the Highlands.

Almost half of the 800,000 acres of the Highlands Region, including a considerable swatch of western Sussex County, are designated as the Highlands Preservation Area. Under the Highland Water Protection and Planning Act, the area comes under the purview of the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council, whose 15 members are appointed by the governor. The council is charged with developing a master plan and implementing the Act, but the DEP can make major policy decisions. In turn, the state legislature can overrule DEP regulations is it believes the rules are contrary to legislative intent.

The current issue is the DEP’s proposed rule that would allow more septic systems in the ecologically sensitive preservation area in order to encourage development; critics say it will bring nitrate pollution and harm the state’s drinking water.

In response, Democrats in the state legislature are confronting the DEP. The Assembly, predictably mostly along party lines, has already passed a resolution to rescind the rule, and if the Senate concurs, the DEP will have to either modify its plan or drop it entirely.