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Christie Unveils Barnegat Bay Protection Program

Gov. Chris Christie

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (credit: Hiroko Masuike/Getty Images)

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LACEY TOWNSHIP, N.J. (AP) — The early closure of the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant, restrictions on fertilizer, new stormwater runoff projects and buying land near sensitive waterways are all needed to save the ailing Barnegat Bay, Gov. Chris Christie said Thursday.

The governor outlined a 10-point plan to protect the bay.

Its centerpiece is an agreement, first reported by The Associated Press on Wednesday, under which Chicago-based Exelon Corp. will close Oyster Creek on Dec. 31, 2019 — 10 years earlier than anticipated. In return, New Jersey dropped its insistence that Exelon build one or more costly cooling towers at the plant to replace the current cooling system, which sucks 1.4 billion gallons of water a day from the bay, and returns warmer water to the fragile waterway.

‘Barnegat Bay is one of my top environmental priorities,” Christie said. “After years of inaction and the bay’s declining ecological health, we finally have a comprehensive plan that will prevent further degradation of the bay and begin the restoration of this incredible New Jersey resource. The changes won’t happen overnight, but the long-term environmental future of Barnegat Bay is now much stronger.”

Exelon president Chris Crane told The Associated Press Thursday that the plant in the Forked River section of Lacey Township will stay open until the very end of 2019, a timeframe it negotiated with New Jersey environmental officials.

Crane said the last three New Jersey administrations have wanted it to build cooling towers. But the current administration of Republican Gov. Christie was willing to work out a deal with Exelon that both sides could live with, Crane said.

In its last few days, the outgoing administration of Democrat Jon Corzine issued a draft water quality permit that would require Oyster Creek to build at least one cooling tower. Exelon pushed back, saying the saying they are prohibitively costly, and threatening to shutter the plant rather than build them.

The company says the $800 million it would cost to build the towers is more than the plant is worth. But environmentalists say the job could be done for about $200 million.

Shortly after Christie took office in January, “We had to show our willingness to come to the table and not insist on running the plant for 20 years,” Crane said. “When we did that, they were able to reach an agreement with us.”

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted Oyster Creek a new 20-year license in 2009.

Another key component of the bay protection plan is a measure to limit the amount of nitrogen making its way into waterways as runoff from lawns and agricultural uses.

Nitrogen causes algae blooms that deprive the water of oxygen and kill marine life. It also sustains colonies of stinging jellyfish, which have invaded the Barnegat Bay and local waterways like the Manasquan and Metedeconk rivers over the past five years, putting them virtually off-limits to swimmers at times, and clogging the engines of some boaters.

The governor also said the state will fund programs designed to reduce the amount of untreated stormwater making its way into waterways. Grants totaling $10 million, plus $100 million over the next decade for no-interest or low-interest loans would help pay for stormwater sewer repairs, stormwater basin upgrades, salt dome coverings, truck wash facilities, street sweeping and leaf collection equipment, septic management, and land acquisition.

Christie said he supports legislation requiring contractors to restore soil that had been packed down and hardened during construction to its original state so that rainwater is absorbed by it instead of running off it into sewers.

He also said he will consider enacting no-go zones for personal watercraft, and would consider establishing a total daily limit of nutrients like nitrogen that can be allowed to enter the bay, something environmentalists have long wanted.

The environmental community was split over the bay protection plan. The New Jersey Environmental Federation’s David Pringle called the Oyster Creek deal “a win for the long-term health of Barnegat Bay, especially given the federal government and Exelon weren’t planning on closing down the plant for 19 years.”

Nicole Dallara, outreach coordinator for the New Jersey Sierra Club, called the agreement “a sweetheart deal for Exelon.”

“When Governor Christie ran he promised that he would protect Barnegat Bay and deal with the cooling towers issue at Oyster Creek, he has done neither,” she said. “He has taken the side of the polluter over the bay.”

(Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)