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McKeon, Muoio & Benson Bill to Block Christie Administration from Chipping Away at Highlands Water Protections Gains Assembly Approval

Measure Would Prevent Admin from Allowing Significantly More Septic Systems to Threaten State’s Largest Drinking Water Supply

By a vote of 48-25-4, the full Assembly on Monday approved legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats John McKeon, Elizabeth Maher Muoio and Daniel Benson to bar the Christie administration from drastically increasing the number of allowable septic systems in protected areas of the Highlands where a vast majority of New Jerseyans draw their drinking water.

The concurrent resolution (ACR-192) conveys the finding of the Legislature that the Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) proposal published in May to revise the septic system density standards in the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act Rules is not consistent with the intent of the Legislature when it passed the original law in 2004, given that the proposed standards “could result in up to 1,145 additional septic systems, or about 12 percent more individual septic systems than under the existing rule.”

“Not only is the Highlands Region the source of drinking water for more than half of our residents, but it also contains precious natural resources such as clean air, forest and wetlands, pristine watersheds, and many significant historical sites and recreational opportunities,” said McKeon (D-Essex/Morris). “The proposed new standards have the potential to add up to 12 percent more septic systems in the Highlands Region, which would have an adverse impact on the quality of the drinking water available to a majority of our residents and run starkly counter to the original intent of the Highlands Act.”

“Even properly operating and maintained septic systems discharge nutrients such as phosphates and nitrates, as well as bacteria and viruses, into groundwater, and improperly sited or maintained septic systems can discharge far worse, resulting in contamination of groundwater and surface water resources,” said Muoio (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). “We cannot sit back and allow the administration to risk contaminating one of our most significant drinking water supplies.”

“The Highlands Region serves an increasingly important role in the state’s potable water supply and, consequently, is deserving of the strongest environmental protections possible,” said Benson (D-Mercer/Middlesex). “Exposing the region to a significantly higher amount of septic waste will spark the gradual decline in the landmark protections the legislature fought so hard for more than a decade ago.”

The Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act (Highlands Act) of 2004 established a comprehensive, long-term approach to protecting and preserving the drinking water and natural resources of the New Jersey Highlands Region, including the identification of a preservation area “that would be subjected to stringent water and natural resource protection standards, policies, planning, and regulation.” The act directed the DEP to develop and enforce an environmental permitting program with statutorily established standards in the preservation area of the Highlands Region.

According to a 2015 report published by the New Jersey Geological and Water Survey, in 2011 the Highlands Region supplied 136 billion gallons of water, constituting approximately one-third of the total amount of potable water used in the State. Highlands water was distributed to 332 municipalities in 16 counties, home to 70 percent of the state’s population, representing an increase from estimates in 1999, which calculated that 107 billion gallons of the state’s potable water came from the Highlands Region and was used in 292 municipalities.

The sponsors noted that septic systems may also contribute to the contamination of groundwater by contaminants that include heavy metals and toxic chemicals from small commercial establishments, ingredients in household products, and organic chemicals typically found in septic tank cleaning products.

The resolution notes that the new standards contained in the DEP’s May 2, 2016 rule proposal do not comply with the requirement in the Highlands Act for the septic system density standards to be established at a level to prevent the degradation of water quality, or to require the restoration of water quality, and to protect ecological uses. Additionally, the proposed new standards do not promote the restoration of water quality, nor are they established upon a sound scientific basis that will ensure the non-degradation of water quality.

For all of these reasons, the proposed amendments to revise the septic system density standards in the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act Rules are inconsistent with the intent of the Legislature.

The measure now heads to the Senate for consideration.

If it is approved by both houses of the legislature, the Commissioner of Environmental Protection would have 30 days from the date of transmittal of this resolution to amend or withdraw the proposed rules and regulations, or the Legislature may, by passage of another concurrent resolution, exercise its authority under the Constitution to invalidate the rules and regulations in whole or in part.