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The Defiant One
Page 3

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's 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.

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