TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie has blocked legislation that would mandate that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection create a water safety standard for an unregulated chemical that has turned up in municipal wells in Moorestown.
Christie conditionally vetoed the bill on Monday, the same day he signed and vetoed dozens of measures sent to him prior to the Assembly's summer recess.
The water safety bill aimed to regulate a maximum contaminant level for 1,2,3-trichloropane, also known as 1,2,3-TCP, which was first discovered in water samples from two of Moorestown's municipal wells in 2013.
The man-made chemical is typically found at industrial or hazardous waste sites and has been used as an industrial solvent and as a cleaning and degreasing agent. It has been labeled as a likely carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but is not regulated by either the state or federal government.
Assembly Bill 3954 would have required the Drinking Water Quality Institute, a state advisory panel, to recommend a safe level for the chemical in drinking water, and then would mandate the DEP to adopt its recommendation within 180 days.
In his veto message, Christie said forcing the department to adopt the advisory panel's recommendation was too extreme.
"While I share the sponsors' concerns regarding the presence of chemicals in our drinking water, I believe that this bill threatens the current system of protection we have in place," the governor wrote. "This bill would elevate the (Drinking Water Quality Institute's) role from an advisory panel to one with binding authority. It is inappropriate to change our system of drinking water protection with regard to the consideration of one chemical, and to remove the department's independent review of the institute's recommendations."
Christie recommended that the bill be changed so that the institute is required to study the chemical, but that the DEP retain its ability to accept or reject the recommendation.
The Drinking Water Quality Institute previously recommended a maximum contaminant level for the chemical in 2009, but the DEP never acted on it because the federal government was in the process of establishing its own standard.
The institute decided to revisit the issue of safe TCP levels last month, but the panel has not yet issued a new recommendation to the department.
Assemblyman Herb Conaway, who co-sponsored the bill with his 7th Legislative District colleague Troy Singleton, said that the issue of TCP has been "studied to death," and that Christie's veto and the DEP's failure to act on the institute's previous recommendations is a threat to public safety.
"The DEP has already acted to shut down wells in Moorestown, so it's amazing to me that they haven't taken more action on a statewide basis," Conaway said Tuesday afternoon. "Surely there are other people that may live in areas with high concentrations of this chemical, and they should be protected. It's a mystery to me."
Conaway also took issue with Christie's reasoning, arguing that the Drinking Water Quality Institute was "insulated" from the political pressure often faced by the DEP.
"I don't look at their role as negative. They're simply bringing study and research to the process of drinking water safety," he said. "I just have to hope the people in authority at the DEP will act to protect health and safety."
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, blasted Christie's veto, arguing that the move put public health at risk.
"The Christie administration is consistently siding with polluters over public health. We would not have needed this legislation except the Christie administration is not moving forward with protecting drinking water," Tittel said in a statement.
The two Moorestown wells where the chemical was found were shut down in October 2014 at the behest of the DEP, but one of them reopened in June after water tests revealed no detectable levels of the chemical.
TCP was found to be present again in the well in July, but township officials have said the levels are not a health concern.