by Carleton Montgomery, Executive Director
Last week, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) granted a permit for construction of a Wal-Mart super-store in the Pinelands National Reserve in Ocean County, even though DEP had twice denied this development for violating regulations that are supposed to protect rare species, water quality and natural habitats.
After the second denial, the Asbury Park Press quoted newly-installed governor Christie as saying “There may be a way around it. The DEP is working on it.”
So it was no surprise when DEP announced a proposed “settlement” to approve the same development plan that DEP had previously denied. The agency’s rationale was that the developer will pay for compensatory habitat enhancements on several other, disconnected and distant pieces of land. Before adopting such a settlement, DEP has to open it up for public comment. So PPA and other groups submitted extensive comments showing the settlement was both legally and scientifically wrong.
There are two more important facts to consider about this deal with Wal-Mart:
First, DEP is no longer calling it a “settlement” of litigation. Now they’re just issuing a permit, as if there was nothing unusual about the case. Calling the deal a “settlement” was actually a candid admission that the plan couldn’t be approved under the Department’s regulations. But after taking public comment, DEP may have realized the law doesn’t allow them to violate their rules just by calling it the approval a “settlement.” When government tries to find “a way around” its rules, it always gets itself twisted up in such contradictions.
Second, we now know more about what kind of company Wal-Mart has become. While sending millions of dollars to national environmental groups, it seems to have been sending even more millions in bribes to government officials across Mexico to buy permits in violation of environmental and other development rules.
In a detailed expose, the New York Times has revealed that Wal-Mart carried out, then covered up, a multi-million dollar campaign of bribing officials throughout Mexico to obtain development permits. When a Wal-Mart lawyer got wind of the bribes and started to investigate, top management transferred the investigation to the very company official in Mexico who was deeply involved in directing the bribery campaign. There it died until the Times started its investigation.
According to the Times report, the bribery campaign and subsequent cover-up were approved at the highest level of the company, including top managers in the U.S. Wal-Mart is not denying the allegations, which are now being investigated by the Justice Department. Bribing foreign officials directly violates American law, as well as foreign laws. It’s also terrible for the economy and welfare of foreign countries, as each bribe begets more bribery and more artificial, bureaucratic rules on which more corrupt officials can hang their demands for cash.
Is it appropriate or seemly for our State to give a special deal to a company that has used bribery to get land use permits in blatant violation of American and foreign law, then tried to bury the evidence? Is this the kind of company to which our governor and DEP Commissioner should give special dispensations on behalf of the people of New Jersey?
The bribery scandal should be the straw that breaks the camel’s back on this bad deal in the Pinelands. Governor Christie should simply withdraw the permit and hold Wal-Mart to the letter of the law if it wants to build a store in the Pines, or anywhere else in New Jersey.
For more details, including the prior DEP permit denial, the proposed “settlement,” and PPA’s and other groups’ objections to the “settlement,” please go to the Pinelands Preservation Alliance web site at www.pinelandsalliance.org/protection/work/currentissues/development/walmarttomsrivermanchester