TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senator Wayne R. Bryant to allow the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to impose penalties on private dam owners who allow their dams to fall into disrepair was approved by the Senate today by a vote of 27-10.
“This bill is about demanding a higher standard of safety from private dam owners,” said Senator Bryant, D-Camden and Gloucester, the Chairman of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. “We cannot allow private citizens to operate dams that may potentially risk the lives and property of their neighbors. By giving the DEP the authority to penalize dam owners whose dams pose a threat, we are ensuring the safety of everyone in the area.”
The bill, S-1895, would allow the Commissioner of Environmental Protection, to impose penalties on private dam owners, ranging from an order requiring repairs be made in accordance with the State’s “Safe Dam Act” to a fine of up to $25,000 for each violation of any provision of the “Safe Dam Act.” The Commissioner would also be authorized to petition the Attorney General to bring criminal action against a dam owner who knowingly, purposefully or recklessly violates the “Safe Dam Act.” Under the bill, the DEP would also be able to remove a dam, and to charge the owner of the dam for the costs of removal, if the dam is deemed to be in imminent danger of failure.
Senator Bryant noted that the floods this summer in Burlington and Camden counties demonstrate the real world need for higher scrutiny and the DEP’s ability to force safety compliance through penalties.
“We were lucky that the only loss suffered when South Jersey faced massive flooding this past summer was in property damage and not lives lost,” said Senator Bryant. “In many of the rural parts of the Garden State, privately-owned dams are the norm, but we need governmental oversight to ensure that the owners are acting in good faith to keep their dams from becoming a safety risk. When a dam does fail, as we saw in South Jersey, it’s the community that ends up paying the price.”
Senator Bryant acknowledged that immediate repair of damaged dams might constitute a fiscal hardship for some private dam owners, but a bill approved last session to authorize the State to issue bonds to fund grants and low-interest loans for water resource management, including private dam repair, would help offset some of the cost. A bill to implement the funding was approved by the Senate in June, but is still pending approval in the Assembly.
“In some instances, the high costs of repair might be a deterrent to keep dam owners from acting responsibly, but State assistance programs approved last year make those arguments moot” said Senator Bryant. “When a dam owner has shown the initiative to apply for funding, the DEP Commissioner will take into account those efforts before applying any penalties. However in cases of gross negligence, where the owner simply failed to act, the DEP Commissioner should have broad authority to do whatever is necessary to force compliance with safety standards in place to protect the community.”
The bill, which was approved by the Senate Environment Committee in October, now heads to the Assembly for consideration.