Christie, in Ocean County, Signs Barnegat Bay Protection Bills
Christie: Bills are "just the beginning" of steps to protect the bay
Governor Chris Christie was in Ocean County Wednesday morning to sign three bills aimed at restoring the health of Barnegat Bay.
Months of political wrangling that held up the bills culminated in a compromise last fall which will provide $115 million in grants and low-interest loans to help local communities implement the legislation.
The bill package includes one of the nation's toughest laws regulating nitrogen-rich lawn fertilizer, which biologists have said promotes the growth of algae which degrades native eel grass beds. The eel grass fosters the growth of shellfish and finfish species, experts say.
The other bills in the package provide for soil replacement measures and the cleanup of stormwater basins responsible for sending runoff – including fertilizer and fecal matter – into the bay by way of storm drains. The soil compaction law will see to it that builders restore native soil that is removed during the development of a parcel of land so rainwater can be properly filtered before making it to the watershed. The stormwater law provides for Ocean County officials and their state and municipal level counterparts to review stormwater plans for the bay's watershed region and repair or create stormwater basins in a way that will reduce runoff into the bay.
The fertilizer bill is the most far-reaching, requiring all fertilizers to contain at least 20 percent "slow release" nitrogen content. Under the new law, homeowners will only be able to fertilize their lawns from March 1 through Nov. 15. Lawn care professionals will have an extra two weeks to fertilize – their season will end Dec. 1. Golf courses are exempt from the regulation.
Christie signed the bills at the Skipper's Cove Beach Club in Waretown, with the bay as his backdrop as he sat at a table surrounded by local legislators.
"Today, you're seeing action being taken," Christie said moments after signing the three bills into law. "We have more to do on this issue. We'll continue to work with our friends and allies in the legislature and continue to move forward. We will not lose focus on this issue."
Part of the plan also calls for the closure of the Oyster Creek Generating Station in Lacey Township. Environmental groups had called on the state to require the plant – which sucks in 1.4 billion gallons of bay water each day – to install cooling towers which would curtail its water usage. In a compromise, the plant's owner, Exelon Nuclear, said it would shutter the plant 10 years before its federal license expires in exchange for not having to build the costly towers. The plant will close in 2019.
"I think we're doing this in a reasonable, step-down fashion," said Christie, on the process of shuttering Oyster Creek. "In my view, we have real concerns about where the energy needs of the people of our state are being met right now. The idea of closing it any sooner, from an energy perspective, just was not feasible."
"Today was the first real step we need to not only implement these bills, but develop rules and regulations that protect Barnegat Bay from sprawl and overdevelopment," said Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, in a statement.
He said, however, that "we have a long way to go" to protect the bay, including setting new pollution standards and retrofitting existing stormwater systems.
"These three bills are the most important three steps, but we still have more than 20 steps to go," said Tittel.
The package of laws is the result of a long-fought political battle which began last summer after committees of the state Senate and Assembly met jointly in Toms River to consider the bills. That joint meeting resulted in the bills being passed on to the full Senate and Assembly bodies for votes.
The plan met local resistance in Ocean County, however. The county freeholder board balked at a proposal in the initial set of bills to create a local stormwater utility in the county that would be funded by county taxpayers. The freeholders collectively fought the proposal, saying the utility would amount to an extra tax on county taxpayers to solve stormwater issues that often originate in state infrastructure and outside of the county itself.
On Dec. 9, Christie announced a $110 million compromise plan to fund the stormwater remediation efforts through a series of grants and low-interest loans, setting the stage for the signing of the bills.
Christie said that the signing of the bill package is "just the beginning of our steps to try to increase the health of Barnegat Bay."
He also said his administration would soon announce plans to replace the energy produced by Oyster Creek once it shuts down in 2019.