Thirty years after the New Jersey Legislature created an independent body to determine limits on pollutants in tap water, there is growing concern about its future.
The Drinking Water Quality Institute - whose schedule is determined by the state Department of Environmental Protection - has not met in more than two years following a fight over tightening limits on industrial chemicals. And legislation has been introduced that would add representatives of industrial and chemical companies to the board and press the institute to consider industry-funded research in its decision making.
"There's a real effort by the chemical companies to try to influence the drinking water standards, and we don't think it's ethical," said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental advocacy group. "They're the ones who create these chemicals so we need to have drinking water standards, which are based on science and human health impacts. It shouldn't have anything to do with the manufacturer."
Since taking office in 2010 Gov. Christie has made overhauling environmental and other regulatory policies a priority toward making New Jersey more business friendly, a concern with chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing jobs falling by almost a third over the last decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Drinking water standards in New Jersey are among the tightest in the country, in many cases exceeding the levels set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The institute was created in 1983 in response to widespread concern about the impact of New Jersey's sprawling industrial complex on water supplies.
While the state DEP ultimately makes the decision on water standards, it relies on the board, which includes academics, environmentalists, water company representatives, and state officials, to review available research and make recommendations.
Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester), who sponsored the legislation affecting the institute, said industry needs to have greater input in the process.
"Sometimes the environmental regulations live past their useful life," he said in an interview Wednesday. "It is a constant evolution of making sure our regulations are adequate to protect the public health but not so burdensome it hurts employment and takes away from people the opportunity to feed their families."
Within Burzichelli's district are some of New Jersey's largest chemical manufacturers and oil refineries, who are major political donors and lobbyists. In 2011, DuPont Co., which operates a sprawling chemical facility in Deepwater, spent more than $200,000 to employ three lobbying firms to work in Trenton on its behalf.
In early 2009, the final year of Gov. Jon S. Corzine's administration, the institute recommended tightening the permissible limits on eight chemicals. Around the same time it also began to look at cracking down on PFOA, which began showing up in wells in New Jersey. The chemical is used to coat nonstick pans and is under review by the EPA because of "suggestive evidence" it causes cancer.
DuPont, which uses PFOA in the manufacture of products at its Deepwater facility, began sending representatives to the institute's board meetings to argue against imposing a stricter standard. In 2010 a company executive wrote a letter to DEP Commissioner Bob Martin calling the institute's methodology "opaque."
"It's always been a relatively small group of people with relatively little public input. Nobody says what research they looked at and opens it to the public so they can see how the standards are set," Hal Bozarth, a lobbyist with the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, which represents pharmaceutical and chemical companies, including DuPont, said in an interview Thursday.
In early 2010, after DEP did not implement any of the institute's recommendations on stricter drinking water standards, Mark Robson, dean of Rutgers' Agricultural and Urban Programs, resigned as chairman of the institute and has not been replaced. He declined to comment.
"It was clear political science was overtaking chemical science, and it was only going to get worse under Christie," said David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation. He spent eight years on the institute's board before he was replaced in 2010.
A DEP spokesman said Thursday the agency was still reviewing the board's 2009 recommendations and was working on filling the board's vacancies.
The legislation proposed by Burzichelli, which was moved out of the Assembly's Environment and Solid Waste Committee last month and is awaiting a vote on the floor, is being painted by supporters as a move to professionalize the process and bring the institute in line with national standards.
But Assemblyman Peter Barnes III (D., Middlesex), who sits on the environmental committee, said he sees the bill as part of a larger move toward loosening the state's environmental standards.
"New Jersey has not always had the best history when it comes to the environment. We have more Superfund sites . . . than any other state," he said. "I understand the desire to cut red tape, and it resonates. But what often ends up is less regulation and less oversight, and that's something I don't agree with."