News & Politics

The Defiant One

What happens when a committed environmentalist is appointed environmental commissioner in one of the most polluted, corrupt states in the nation? All politics break loose.
"How many of you know someone in your classroom or on your street who has asthma?"

Bradley M. Campbell, the New Jersey Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, is surrounded by 5th and 6th graders on a sidewalk in Trenton. In response to the commissioner's question, most of the children raise their hands. They all live in neighborhoods where people run air conditioners not only to keep cool but also to filter dirty city air. This morning, they're getting ready to plant 25 green ash shade trees in a city park, as Trenton's mayor, Douglas H. Palmer, looks on.

"You know asthma attacks are actually going up and one of the reasons is air quality," Campbell goes on. "When you clean up the air by planting trees, you don't have to run the air conditioner as much."

Campbell, 42, endowed with a disconcerting, slightly overbearing intensity, speaks to the children slowly, enunciating his words. He sounds, uncharacteristically, like a schoolteacher patiently laying out a math problem to be solved by his class. The kids seem to listen. He seems to like being a schoolmaster.

"The less the air conditioner runs, the less coal or fuel will burn that will dirty the air," he says. "There are also benefits for the families along these blocks. If you plant trees it makes the homes that people have invested in more valuable."

The event -- the kids, the mayor, the onlookers -- is part of a statewide initiative to plant 100,000 trees in New Jersey, and is about what you would expect from an environmental commissioner in an age of photo ops. But Campbell is not just another politician who shakes hands and gets his picture taken in front of trees. With the backing of Governor James. E. McGreevey, he has picked fights with some choice adversaries in a state where environmental controls have often gone unenforced, where the state's legislature remains firmly in the grip of developers, and where land and water resources face a relentless onslaught. Unabashedly ambitious, he has vowed to make New Jersey a national model in the fight against urban sprawl and pollution.

"We are stopping many development projects dead in their tracks," he says. "We're enacting a tough standard for mercury while the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is not. And we're the first state to negotiate the shutdown of an upwind power plant in another state."

These are worthy accomplishments, but Campbell also happens to be environmental commissioner in a state that leads the nation in Superfund sites and is struggling to curb the toxins, pollutants, and stench pumped out of its industrial smokestacks. It is literally running out of open space. And, like most states, New Jersey is faced with huge deficits and massive budget cuts, which have not made the McGreevey administration terribly popular with voters. The effort to slash budgets as well as put teeth back into environmental controls has also won the enmity of state legislators, lobby groups, and big business, so Campbell must make his way adroitly among the state's power brokers, while juggling political alliances, the demands of environmental groups, and the expectations of the electorate.

It cannot be easy. Indeed, some of Campbell's nastiest battles have been with fellow Democrats, many of whom are as firmly planted in the camp of the state's big developers as their Republican opponents. Developers give generously to candidates from each party in New Jersey, so long as they keep the toothless environmental controls toothless. Many of these contributors already have the governor in their crosshairs for the 2005 election.

"By drawing a line in the sand when it comes to protecting natural resources, Governor McGreevey has taken on entrenched special interests," Campbell says as a chauffeured car whisks him back to his office from the tree planting ceremony. "But there is a range of views within the building community. Some are more sophisticated than others. And everyone understands the amount of land we have is finite and that we have to use it more efficiently and more rationally if we want to sustain growth. Even developers know that we cannot pave over our drinking water."

Almost one year ago, Governor McGreevey and his commissioner vowed to unleash the nation's toughest anti-sprawl campaign in this country's most densely packed state. The state loses nearly 50 acres a day to development -- not a huge number compared to states like California, but New Jersey has little space to spare. The rapacious appetite of the developers was something Campbell, in large part, was hired to stop. The most notorious symbol of this initiative has been the BIG (Blueprint for Intelligent Growth) map, which lays out one of the most ambitious land conservation programs in the nation. It includes color-coded regions: Green means growth; yellow means limited growth; red means little or no growth.

But only 10 months after unveiling the map, the administration had to revise it under intense pressure from the building industry and its allies in the state legislature. This retreat has delighted the builders, many of whom see in Campbell and the governor a pair of crusaders willing to cripple business to promote an unrealistic environmental agenda. They say the decision to change the map constitutes a sign that they are beginning to tame the McGreevey administration.

"Campbell was politically naive," says Jim Sinclair, the first vice-president of the state's Business and Industry Association. "This has been a very partisan administration. It was initially a very antibusiness administration. Things have changed; the commissioner and his staff are learning. They have become more responsive to the larger needs of the state instead of just a narrow political agenda."

Campbell, however, refuses to concede any setbacks. He insists, over dinner at a restaurant in his hometown of Lambertville, a bucolic village about 20 minutes from Trenton, that what he cannot do through legislation he and the governor can do with regulation. He argues that the map, which has dominated the debate over land use in the state since it was introduced, is a red herring. It is late, he is obviously tired, and as he finishes his dinner and a glass of red wine, he becomes more heated. The goals of the map, he says, will be met in other ways, with other tactics. He says that his office can issue regulations that will stop development near watersheds and streams, as well as on open land. The regulations, he says, will achieve the goals of the scuttled color-coded map without the map.

"We will propose regulatory reforms to strengthen environmental protections by the end of the year," he says. "This is not a defeat. This does not mean we will not be able to carry out our goals."

Some of the proposed regulatory reforms would require habitat conservation plans for areas with threatened and endangered species; others would strengthen wetlands protections in watershed areas.

Indeed, builders charge that although the map is gone, the governor's unstated goal to weaken the building industry remains in place. Groups such as the Builders League of South Jersey were busy lobbying legislative candidates from each party who ran for the 120 seats in the statehouse this year. The McGreevey administration's efforts to curb development have spurred record membership in the builders association and record campaign contributions to builder-friendly candidates, many of whom are Democrats. The map may have fallen victim to the builders' lobby, but it is clear that many builders intend the real victims in 2005 to be the governor and his combative commissioner.

"My first preference is always to identify common ground for moving forward," Campbell insists. "In many areas we are doing that. But the builders' lobby in New Jersey seems to me uniquely hostile to compromise and negotiation. At a point when the federal government is weakening environmental protection across the board, I'm committed to moving the state in a more progressive direction. I want to give this governor an unrivaled environmental legacy. Being able to achieve that progress makes it worth the fight."

Environmentalists have watched this pitched battle between Campbell and the builders with a mixture of dread and amusement. Jeff Tittel, the director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, says that during the Whitman years the Department of Environmental Protection had degenerated into a "don't test, don't tell" agency.

Whitman, of course, left the governorship to head the EPA under President Bush, a post from which she resigned last spring. Under Whitman, there was little effort, Tittel continues, to hunt down or report violations. Tittel says the department gathered within its offices a large number of "anti-environmental people" who are currently working against Campbell "trying to sabotage the improvements."

"Commissioner Campbell has set up some strong goals on sprawl and on clean water," Tittel says. "But because the department is the way it is, our concern is: Can they actually get the things done? From where we stand it's frustrating because you're expecting these wonderful changes but it's still business as usual because the old rules are still in effect. It's an 'A' for goals and an 'incomplete' for deliverables."

This seems to be the view shared by most environmentalists, who are still waiting for the commissioner to deliver what he has promised. "His heart is very much in the right place," says David Pringle, the campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation. "That's a significant change from the Whitman administration. Whitman set the bar very low."

Campbell, as many of his opponents remind you, did not come out of New Jersey politics. A graduate of Amherst College, where he majored in history, Campbell went on to attend law school at the University of Chicago, graduating near the top of his class. As a law student, he spent summers working for The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, where he was first introduced to environmental law. After a brief stint in private practice, he joined the United States Justice Department and was eventually recruited by the department's Environmental Natural Resources division. Under President Clinton, he became the associate director for the White House Council on Environmental Quality and then the regional administrator of the mid-Atlantic region for the EPA. When Campbell got the call from Governor McGreevey, he was preparing to teach his spring course load at the University of North Carolina.

McGreevey's poll numbers have since plunged, yet the recent midterm election was the first in 50 years in which a sitting governor's party gained seats. But because of opposition to the governor's environmental agenda within his own party, the victory may not translate into a boost for his programs. Campbell insists the governor will not back down. Campbell's critics, however, say the verdict is still out: In New Jersey, builders with deep pockets and inroads into a political system rife with corruption don't lose many battles.

Campbell works out of a corner office in Trenton not far from the statehouse. Today he sits hunched over his keyboard and squints slightly as he reads his computer screen. He wears a pinstriped suit and a blue silk tie with dots, which he tugs gently as he fields phone calls. His body is constantly in motion.

One of his staff comes in through the open door and asks him to sign off on a memo. She stands next to him as he reads it.

"I can give you some time," she says. "I don't mean to hover."

"Stay," he tells her. "Hovering is good."

His office is flanked on two sides by a row of 10 windowpanes. He can look out at a small thicket of woods through one set of windows and, from the other side, he can see in the distance the smokestacks of the Mercer power plant run by the Public Service Electric and Gas Company. Under his feet is a blue wall-to-wall carpet. The many photos in the office, including the ones of him with President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, capture him with the same tight-lipped and slightly impish grin. On one wall he's displayed a Jimmy Margulies cartoon that shows a giant elephant with the words "INDUSTRY" written on it. The elephant is kicking over barrels of toxins as an exhausted man rolls a clean-up garbage can that says "TAXPAYERS." The cartoon once hung in Campbell's conference room, but he moved it to his office when representatives of the building industry complained about it. This speaks volumes about the commissioner, who is hoping to win over more developers to his side and whose in-your-face attacks on the builders have clearly softened of late. Still, the cartoon has not disappeared entirely. And though Campbell is less acerbic in public, his commitment to his environmental agenda and to curbing the excesses of big business seems undiminished.

Despite all his common cause with environmentalists, as a government official Campbell worries they are not always pragmatic about what can be accomplished. The current row over acceptable arsenic levels in water illustrates where he breaks with some environmental groups. New Jersey will propose the nation's most stringent limit for arsenic in drinking water. The proposed limit, 5 parts arsenic per billion (ppb) of water, would be half the new federal ceiling of 10 ppb, which takes effect in 2006.

Environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) would like to see the state enforce a limit of 3 ppb, a standard that no other state or the federal government has yet to demand. Erik D. Olson, a senior attorney with the NRDC, argues that all the science and health risk information, as well as the Department of Environmental Protection's science advisers, say the standard should be 3 ppb. He wants to see Campbell raise the bar.

"We're worried about whether he'll go with the stricter standard or go with the weaker standard that industry has been pushing for," says Olson. "He has the opportunity to set a national precedent that would protect millions of people's health by adopting a strict standard for arsenic."

Campbell says he already is instituting the toughest standard in the nation. He finds the carping about the standard unfair, given the tremendous pressure he is facing from industry and business.

"It is too much to ask of us right now," he says with evident frustration. "The health benefits of going to 3 [ppb] are not accurately established. We're already cutting in half a standard that Whitman thought was too tough. This is an example where we are being pushed to go further in the hopes that other states will go half as far. That's their prerogative, but I have to justify what I do locally."

Campbell's last appointment of the day is with a dozen gray-haired flannel-clad hunters and fishermen from wildlife organizations such as Jersey Coast Anglers and Trout Unlimited. The men speak slowly, offering their concerns for more than two hours. Campbell, surprisingly, doesn't show a trace of impatience. After a typical day racing to appointments, this is the first time he seems to unwind. When one man explains how to catch a bobcat with a feather and bobcat urine, Campbell holds his chin in his palm and smiles, or leans back in his chair and fiddles with his shoe. He has a faraway, sleepy look in his eyes, although when it's time to address each man's concern, Campbell fires back an immediate and informed response. Although he has tangled with these groups before, today he's clearly enjoying the casual banter of the old men. They all seem to be friends -- a rare event for a man with so many adversaries.

Chris Hedges has been on staff at the New York Times for 13 years. The author of "War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning" he lives in New Jersey and serves as a journalism professor at Princeton University.
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