"If this could happen at the Port Authority, how else has government been abused for the political advantage of the governor in other agencies?" -John Wisniewski, Chair, NJ Assembly Transportation Committee
For New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's administration, the political culture that resulted in the "Bridgegate" scandal seems more the rule than the exception. People close to Gov. Christie have been accused of engineering the closing of rush-hour traffic lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge in the town of Fort Lee. The closings are thought by some to be political retribution, possibly against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Mr. Christie in the November 2013 election.
The U.S. Attorney for New Jersey is looking into the matter to see whether federal laws were violated, and the State Assembly has launched its own inquiry.
The scandal raises this important question: Are there other instances where the Christie administration may have misused its authority?
I have one, and it is deeply disturbing to the residents who live near the Rahway River in Carteret, as well as people who care about the New Jersey environment. A few years ago, a project proposed for that town was brought to my organization's attention. A Maryland-based company, Soil Safe Inc., plans to import at least two million tons of imported petroleum-contaminated soils to fill 90 acres of flood plain along the Rahway River. Lower-level Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) staff raised numerous red flags on this project, including the fact that the company claimed the site was so contaminated only a cap of additional contaminated soil could prevent pollution to the nearby river. The company has produced only inadequate data to support this claim.
Most alarming to NY/NJ Baykeeper, my organization that fights for clean water, was that the weight of this soil would be piled on top of unstable earthen berms right alongside the Rahway River. We feared a future collapse. And because DEP is leaving in place liability protections previously granted to the site's former owner, American Cyanamid, we knew that the taxpayers of New Jersey would have to pay for any future cleanup.
I felt reassured, however, when I read the strong objections of five different technical bureaus within DEP that raised significant concerns about the project. The reviews validated my fears about the project and I felt confident that -- based on the reviews -- it would never be issued permits. But lo and behold, at 5:36 p.m. on the night before Memorial Day weekend, the DEP issued unconventional "conditional permits" -- including one that would waive the prohibition to place hazardous materials in a flood plain.
We soon discovered that the agency had not even received key documents on the site before it issued the conditional permits, including the geotechnical report to substantiate the company's claims that the property could withstand the weight of two million tons of soil piled on top of it. How could DEP even consider issuing permits?
Communities along the Rahway River then began to loudly express concerns about the project's potential to worsen existing flooding, given that it proposed to fill in a flood plain in a highly urbanized area. Their concerns were especially resonant given the devastating flooding that occurred both in Hurricane Irene in 2012 and Hurricane Sandy in 2013. Suddenly, a high level political appointee at DEP began to send out letters telling mayors and residents not to worry about flooding. Five days prior to the first letter, this appointee attended a party -- at taxpayer expense -- hosted by one of the company's former attorneys.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is including the project area in its pending flood management study of the Rahway River to see what impact filling 90 acres of a regularly flooded area might do to the adjacent communities, yet DEP's spokesman stated that they won't wait for the Corps' results to approve the project.
At his recent press conference, Governor Christie touted his bipartisan relationships. We wonder if those are driving this project, especially given that the company's president personally gave nearly $30,000 to Governor Christie's Democratic BFF, NJ Senate President Stephen Sweeney and his associated campaigns over the last several years. The company also gave comparable donations. When Senator Sweeney was Director of the Gloucester County Freeholders, the County received millions of dollars in tipping fees from Soil Safe, which the County could spend "at its discretion." Additionally, among the property owners in Carteret is the law partner of Union County Democratic boss Senator Ray Lesniak.
The Newark Star-Ledger Editorial Board asked "Why the Haste?" on this project. We wonder too. In a post-Bridgegate world, we wonder even more. The question must be asked: if Governor Christie's staff is capable of gridlocking a city, are they also capable of disregarding their own agency staff's dire warnings and disdainfully dismissing the repeated objections of regularly flooded communities?
While the nation is transfixed on this one incident of lane closings, it is unfortunate that the residents of NJ have been subjected to "politics" in many other aspects of agency decision-making for the last four years.