N.J. environmental chief is retiring after 3 years and 13 major lawsuits filed against polluters
The Garden State’s top environmental official is retiring after serving three years in Gov. Phil Murphy’s cabinet.
Catherine McCabe, the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, will leave her post Jan. 15. Murphy’s office announced her retirement Tuesday morning, and the news was first reported by Politico.
McCabe, who previously served the federal government as a high-ranking official in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said in a statement that she was honored to have led the DEP under Murphy.
“Together with partners across the Administration, supported by DEP’s exceptional career professionals, we have made New Jersey stronger and fairer through our respect for science and the rule of law, our commitment to equity and environmental justice, and stepping up to confront the most pressing environmental and public health challenges of our time,” McCabe said. “I am confident that, under Governor Murphy’s leadership, our DEP team will continue to ensure that future generations of New Jerseyans will breathe cleaner air, drink safer water, and enjoy our abundant natural resources.”
Murphy said McCabe had advanced “critical initiatives” to protect public and environmental health for future generations.
“From helping to enact New Jersey’s first-in-the-nation environmental justice law to reigniting the State’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change, Commissioner McCabe has restored the Department to its rightful place as a national leader in environmental protection,” Murphy said in a statement. “I wish her nothing but the best as she enters retirement. There is no greater job than being a grandmother.”
Murphy is expected to name McCabe’s successor in “coming weeks,” according to the announcement.
The DEP’s aggressiveness in court wasa major shift in the agencyfrom former Gov. Chris Christie’s administration to the Murphy administration. McCabe, who previously served in the U.S. Department of Justice’s environmental division, frequently teamed up with state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to sue polluters for natural resource damages — the same kind of litigation as the state’s high-profile battle with Exxon.
Under McCabe, the state has filed 13 natural resource damages cases. No such cases were filed by the state in eight years under the Christie administration.
The DEP has also been seen as a national leader in addressing contamination from per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — widely used chemicals that are known to be toxic and are sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down easily.
McCabe has overseen the implementation of new drinking water standards for three of the most common PFAS: Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA).
Last year, the DEP issued a directive to chemical giants DuPont, 3M, Chemours and Solvay, instructing the companies to identify and remediate PFAS pollution around New Jersey. The companies uniformly pushed back against that directive.
The peak of Newark’s lead water crisis unfolded under McCabe. DEP responded by giving the city a $12 million loan to launch a lead service line replacement program. That loan was later dwarfed by a $120 million bond program from Essex County that allowed the city to move forward quickly in removing the source of the lead.
Environmental justice also became a DEP focus under McCabe, particularly after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked a national conversation about pervasive racism in American society. This summer, the DEP named its first deputy commissioner focused on environmental justice and advocated for a landmark law addressing the cumulative impacts in communities overburdened by pollution.
Jeff Tittel, the head of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said McCabe did a good job restoring the DEP’s enforcement and focusing on environmental justice. But Tittel and other environmentalists have bemoaned the state for not taking concrete steps to fight climate change.
“In some ways we stopped the bleeding, but we didn’t make the progress I think we needed to make,” Tittel said.
Under McCabe, New Jersey rejoined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which is a cap-and-trade agreement among Northeastern states that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while generating revenue for the member states. New Jersey expects to receive $80 million annually from RGGI, which will be dedicated to environmental spending.
Beyond that, DEP released the state’s first comprehensive scientific report on expected local impacts of climate change, and put forward a roadmap of recommendations for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. DEP has also worked with other state agencies to advance offshore wind development and has been developing a statewide climate resiliency plan.
Both Tittel and Matthew Smith, the state director for Food & Water Watch, said McCabe should’ve directed DEP to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Smith also criticized McCabe for not doing enough to reverse the environmental rollbacks by the Christie administration. Smith said a number of Christie’s policies make it easier for pipelines and fossil fuel infrastructure to be built in New Jersey, undercutting Murphy’s stated goals of moving the Garden State to a clean energy future.
Activists have spent nearly two years calling for a total moratorium on fossil fuel development in New Jersey. While DEP under McCabe has opposed some fossil fuel projects, like the PennEast pipeline and a proposed Meadowlands power plant, the state has not embraced an outright moratorium.
Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, cited the permits DEP issued for a controversial proposed liquified natural gas terminal in South Jersey as among the disappointing decisions the department has made on the fossil fuel front.
“Certainly the advancement of [PFAS] protections and rejection of the PennEast pipeline have been important, but it is not really clear that those positions were advanced by McCabe as Commissioner as opposed to being prioritized by the Governor’s office,” van Rossum said.
Environmentalists now turn their attention to the search for McCabe’ successor.
Smith said Murphy should look outside the DEP for the department’s next leader. Smith named Cynthia Mellon, co-chair of the Newark Environmental Commission, as an example of the kind of grassroots leader who should be guiding state environmental policy. Tittel also said he’d like to see Murphy bring in an outsider, and suggested Lisa Garcia and Al Armendariz — former EPA officials under President Barack Obama — as model candidates.
Ultimately, van Rossum said, DEP’s next leader should practice what the Murphy administration preaches.
“When NJDEP say climate change is bad and fracking is harmful, it should put that perspective into action by using its power to stop the ongoing advancement of fossil fuel infrastructure in the state,” van Rossum said.
“Ultimately when it comes to protecting a healthy environment and meeting the urgency of the climate crisis, the buck stops with Governor Murphy,” Smith said.
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Michael Sol Warren may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.