Environmental prosecutor bill advances in N.J. Senate

A bill sponsored by state Sen. Ellen Karcher of Marlboro (D-Monmouth and Mercer) to create a statewide Office of the Environmental Prosecutor in order to pursue legal action against criminals who violate environmental laws in New Jersey was unanimously approved by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

“In light of the tight fiscal conditions facing New Jersey, we need to have watchdogs in place to ensure that state investments are producing the most for their money,” said Karcher. “The Office of the Environmental Prosecutor, which would largely be a restructuring of the Environ-mental Law Enforcement unit under the Attorney General, is a lateral move that would put greater emphasis on criminal prosecution of polluters in the Garden State.

“It would provide key oversight to make sure that polluters cannot undo all the positive environmental work we’re doing on the state level, and would require them to be responsible when they do damage our environment,” the senator said.

The bill, a Senate Committee substitute for S-989, would establish a special environmental prosecutor under the Depart-ment of Law and Public Safety to handle criminal prosecutions for violations of state environmental law. The prosecutor would be appointed by the Governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate, and would be in charge of the Division of Environmental Law Enforcement under the Department of Law and Public Safety.

“Given the damage to the Delaware River by a ruptured oil tanker recently, this bill is all the more important,” said Karcher. “While I have no reason to believe that all parties won’t act responsibly at the end of the day in terms of cleaning up the Delaware, in the event of a protracted legal battle, New Jersey needs the resources and expertise that an environmental prosecutor would afford the Garden State.”

Karcher said she expects a vote to be taken in the Senate before that body adjourns for the winter break on Dec. 13.

“One person would be vested with the responsibility to find out who is at fault and prosecute them in order to recoup the dollars that would pay for cleanup costs” of a polluted site, the senator said.

Karcher noted that the concept of a special environmental prosecutor is not new to New Jersey. Gov. Jim Florio created the position in 1990 by executive order to centralize responsibility for the coordination of the state’s criminal, civil and administrative enforcement of high-priority environmental cases, but Gov. Christie Whitman abolished the office in 1994, stating that it was not an efficient use of resources.

“The environmental prosecutor model has worked for the state in the past in terms of keeping New Jersey’s businesses environmentally honest, and I think it will be a useful tool to have in place for the future,” Karcher said. “A strong environmental prosecutor will serve as a deterrent to those who would defile all the great things we’ve done on behalf of the environment in the Garden State.”