Four years ago, environmental groups hoped Jon Corzine would put the environment high on his list of priorities.

Today, many of the same groups say Corzine, now seeking a second term as governor, has failed to live up to his promises and has disappointed them on a range of environmental issues, including open-space preservation and toxic-waste cleanups.

His fall from grace in the eyes of environmentalists is in many ways surprising: As a U.S. senator, Corzine won unstinting praise from many advocates, including the League of Conservation Voters, for his voting record and leadership on environmental issues.

In addition, Corzine's commissioner at the Department of Environmental Protection, Lisa Jackson, was picked by President Obama to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. And Democrats are traditionally seen as friends of the environment.

But it's clear that in 31/2 years, Corzine has frustrated environmental advocates.

"We think, even after discounting the economic and budget problems that weren't his doing, his record has been overall very disappointing," said David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation.

In just one sign of environmentalists' displeasure, the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club is endorsing independent candidate Chris Daggett in the governor's race, the first time it has backed an independent candidate (although some years the group has not endorsed anyone).

"Going in, we had high hopes for this administration, given Gov. Corzine's record as a senator and based on campaign commitments," said Jeff Tittel, the group's director. "We've seen many of those commitments broken. Not only have environmental protections been weakened, but it seems like we're turning the state over to developers and development interests. Unfortunately, Gov. Corzine has not lived up to our expectations."

Critics say Corzine has failed to take the lead on the environmental issues.

Four years ago, his environmental platform was praised as one of the most comprehensive ever offered by a gubernatorial candidate in New Jersey; today, the campaign's Web site describes no plan for the environment for the next four years, although one brief page touts what it calls the governor's accomplishments in reducing greenhouse emissions, safeguarding the water supply, and creating a green economy.

Asked about its accomplishments for this article, the Corzine administration noted that New Jersey had become the third state to set greenhouse-gas-reduction goals and had enacted the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions.

Corzine also counts among his chief achievements a new state energy master plan, whose goals include reducing overall energy use 20 percent by 2020 and having 30 percent of the state's energy consumption come from renewable sources by 2020.

Other environmental successes cited by supporters include stopping bear hunting and banning horseshoe crabbing to aid red knots, shorebirds that rely on horseshoe-crab eggs for food during their long migrations.

Matt Elliott, clean-energy advocate for Environment New Jersey, said the goals in the energy master plan put New Jersey at the nation's forefront. He praised Corzine for developing the plan but said that, ideally, the plan would include more mandates rather than unenforceable goals.

Four years ago, Corzine's Republican opponent, Doug Forrester, accused him of being too close to politically connected developers. For example, Corzine angered some environmentalists when he hired former Cherry Hill Mayor Susan Bass Levin, who was viewed as favoring developers, to lead his first gubernatorial campaign. But environmentalists were won over by Corzine's promises.

Today, environmental advocates seem to agree that Corzine has sometimes sided with developers over the environment.

One top concern of environmentalists is Corzine's failure to secure a permanent and stable source of funding for open-space preservation. Instead, he has relied on voter approval for borrowing money in bond referendums. Some environmental groups worry that a $400 million bond proposal on the ballot in November could fail because the economy is so bad, jeopardizing the state's open-space programs.

Pringle, of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, said several pieces of legislation signed into law by Corzine favored development interests at the expense of the environment.

The 2008 Permit Extension Act, for example, extended state and municipal development permits for two extra years, even if they had already expired, to respond to the slowdown in the economy. An "economic stimulus" bill approved this year allows developers to receive up to 75 percent of tax revenue created by their projects for up to 20 years, and places a moratorium on a nonresidential-development fee intended to build affordable housing. Critics called both provisions giveaways to developers.

Another bill Pringle pointed to would allow polluters to select and pay for private consultants to oversee and clean up contaminated-waste sites. The bill was intended to speed up cleanups, but environmentalists worry it gives polluters and developers too much control.

Corzine praises the law as an example of making the DEP more efficient, "allowing the DEP to focus its resources on sites that pose the greatest risk."

Environmentalists also say Corzine should have taken a stronger stand on the preservation of Petty's Island in the Delaware River. Whereas Forrester called for the 392-acre island, once used by Citgo Petroleum to refine and store petroleum, to be cleaned up and preserved, Corzine refused to come out against development, urging that the island be cleaned up before any decisions were made about its final use.

After a proposed development fell through because of the softening real estate market, the state eventually voted to accept the island to be used as a natural preserve.

While environmentalists praised the Corzine administration for its work behind the scenes to ink the deal, they argued the governor should have pushed harder for preservation before the development plans fell through.

The bottom line, some environmental advocates say, is that Corzine has failed to be an environmental leader.

"What we were looking for was leadership, a governor who would take the reins, who would say, 'I will be the one to drive,' " said Elliott, or Environment New Jersey. "Instead, it felt more like he took a back seat. The onus was on the environmental community to make things happen."

What Corzine's Foes Propose

Christopher J. Christie

Republican gubernatorial candidate Christie promotes a record of putting polluters in jail and collecting millions of dollars in fines.

On open-space preservation, he said he wanted to find a long-term, stable funding source, saying one possibility is dedicating a portion of the sales tax. "I think open space is an important priority for the state," he said, "and people are going to want us to deal with that."

Christie said the Department of Environmental Protection should focus more on environmental protection rather than on new regulations and increases in permits and fees.

Another top priority would be renewable energy, such as solar and wind, Christie said. He also wants to see the state work more with federal authorities to prevent ocean- and river-dumping.

Chris Daggett

Independent gubernatorial candidate Daggett called the environment - along with the economy and education - one of the state's top issues.

Under President Ronald Reagan, Daggett was regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, overseeing New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and then was DEP commissioner under Gov. Tom Kean. He received praise from environmentalists in both jobs.

At the EPA, he helped block a $2 billion road-and- development project on the west side of Manhattan that scientists argued would harm the environment. At the DEP, he helped prevent the dumping of medical waste and other garbage in the oceans.

Daggett owns a firm that remediates and redevelops contaminated properties. He also works as an environmental consultant, helping municipalities to remediate and redevelop polluted sites.

Daggett is endorsed by the state Sierra Club, which four years ago endorsed Gov. Corzine. "Chris Daggett has shown leadership and a real commitment to protecting our environment," said Jeff Tittel, the group's director. "He has demonstrated his willingness to stand up to special interests and politicians to do what's right for the environment."

A longtime advocate of open-space preservation, Daggett has twice chaired the Garden State Preservation Trust and cochaired the New Jersey Committee of the Trust for Public Land. Like Christie, he favors a dedicated source of funding for open space.

Daggett recently chaired a DEP permit-efficiency task force. He said that the group, which included environmentalists and developers, had agreed on 90 recommendations to streamline the DEP permit process without compromising environmental protections or adding staff.

Daggett said he would strengthen DEP's science and research capabilities and encourage stronger partnerships between the DEP and colleges and universities. - Adrienne Lu

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Contact staff writer Adrienne Lu at 609-989-8990 or alu@phillynews.com.