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Bradley M. Campbell

The Defiant One

by Chris Hedges

"Even developers understand we can't pave over our drinking water."

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. He has, with the backing of Governor James. E. McGreevey, 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. And 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, as long as they keep the toothless environmental controls toothless. And 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."

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Veteran foreign correspondent 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 also serves as a journalism professor at Princeton University.

Illustration: Andrea Ventura

OnEarth. Winter 2004
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council