Residents talk environment

| 22 Mar 2017 | 12:32

By Meghan Byers
NEWTON — Approximately 100 Northwest New Jersey residents gathered at Sussex County Community College on Tuesday night to air their concerns regarding the environment – not to their own representatives, but to State Assemblyman Tim Eustace (D-38) from Bergen County, who is chair of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee.
Susan Williams, herself chair of the Skylands Group of the New Jersey Sierra Club, arranged the community meeting with Eustace after she was unable to find support from local legislators.
"Our own legislators, they're not doing anything for us," she said. "We need access to the legislators down in Trenton. We're hoping Assemblyman Eustace can be our champion."
Eustace, who is a chiropracter by trade and served as mayor of Maywood from 2008 to 2012, said that while he does not represent the Sussex County area, he had been sworn in to represent the entire state of New Jersey.
Local residents came to the Performing Arts Center at SCCC to share their worries and opinions about a variety of environmental issues, both local and statewide, during the "town hall Q & A" style meeting that lasted nearly two hours. Some in the audience represented organizations overlapping with the Sierra Club, such as Friends of Sparta Mountain, which has opposed the mountain's logging, and the NJ League of Conservation Voters.
The highly controversial logging of Sparta Mountain was one of the concerns raised at the meeting, an issue with which the Skylands Group of the Sierra Club has been deeply involved. Other concerns included the use of Round-up, installation of pipelines, and how to increase the state's investment in renewable power sources – especially wind power, which Eustace enthusiastically supported.
The frustration at a lack of response from local politicians and government organizations was a running theme in the discussion, both for the audience and Eustace himself.
"My hope is that in ten months we'll be seating somebody who has an environmental ear," said Eustace, referring to the fact that Gov. Chris Christie, who has scored poorly on environmental matters according to watchdog groups, will be reaching the end of his tenure in less than a year. He went on to refer to Christie as "the bully in Trenton" and criticized the governor's line-item veto power, which he says Christie has used to veto environmental protection bills.
Eustace told the audience to continue to contact all New Jersey representatives about issues that concerned them, regardless of their district. He advised not to bother with form letters, however, which he said he personally receives in great numbers and finds to be a hindrance. Instead, he recommended calling or writing in about personal concerns.
"If something happens in your life and it's important to you, then I need to know about that," he said.
At times, Eustace's unfamiliarity with local issues was evident.
"You don't know our area," said one local resident, when Eustace attempted to reassure them that the township was required to conduct an environmental impact survey before proceeding with any development – something that is not true for many towns in Sussex County according to audience members.
However, Eustace wrote down some of the questions raised, and promised to look into a few local issues. "We're going to make the DEP do their job," he said, to thanks and applause.
"The DEP is a shell of what it used to be," one audience member pointed out, citing the reduction that the Department of Environmental Protection has seen under Governor Christie.
One of the biggest problems facing the state in all areas, according to Eustace, is the effect of dangerous levels of lead in paint and drinking water, which he said harms "thousands of kids in our state." He talked about the long-term financial burden of supporting children suffering from the effects of lead, and said, "Your kids are the canaries in the coal mine."
Above all else, the conversation seemed to always circle back to clean water, which Williams had expected.
"Everybody cares about their drinking water," said Williams. "Why is it normal that people are drinking water from a bottle? Why is it normal that people are afraid to drink their tap water?"
Eustace is a Democrat, and the issues raised at the meeting often fell in line with progressive views. Although she said that the Skylands Group probably does not currently include many Republicans, Williams said that the environment "should be an issue of human beings and our families, not a Democrat or Republican issue."
Eustace wrapped up the meeting by encouraging the audience to speak to their friends and family about the issues that concerned them, and to "go out and get ten people to commit to vote."