Rutgers to take over state lab in Meadowlands

July 17, 2015    Last updated: Friday, July 17, 2015, 1:21 AM



The Record



The state laboratory that conducts scientific research in the Meadowlands will be taken over by Rutgers-Newark, a move approved Thursday that many say will secure the future of a group of scientists who have worked to restore the region’s ecology.

The fate of the Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute had been in question ever since a controversial new law was rushed through the Legislature and signed by Governor Christie this year. The law called for the institute to be jettisoned from state government and become a non-profit. Several scientists and environmentalists had feared that the institute, known as MERI, would be forced to downsize or even fold if it had to raise funds completely on its own.

That won’t happen after the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority adopted a resolution Thursday that puts the institute under the control of Rutgers-Newark’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

School and sports authority officials said it would bolster the ability of both institutions to obtain grant money, give Rutgers professors and students a field station to conduct research and still provide the technical assistance such as mapping software used by 14 towns in the Meadowlands. The move would also save the sports authority more than $1 million annually.

"We’re always looking to be fiscally prudent, so yes, this helps with that," said Wayne Hasenbalg, president of the sports authority.

For more than a decade, MERI had been the scientific arm of the state Meadowlands Commission conducting scores of scientific projects to help the region’s wetlands, long polluted by industrial waste and landfills. Its accomplishments include capping toxic sediment in marshes, reestablishing native vegetation wiped out by invasive plants and detailing areas most vulnerable to catastrophic flooding in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

A bill that was fast-tracked through Trenton just a few days before Christmas sought to fold the commission into the sports authority, raising concerns because the two agencies were so different. The commission controlled zoning and development in 14 towns and through MERI had made environmental restoration a priority. The authority was in charge of the Meadowlands Sports Complex and focused mostly on economic development.

One sentence in the 80-page bill called for MERI to become a non-profit organization, creating confusion among its staff and fears that the institute would no longer have steady funding. In February, Christie signed the bill into law as well as another bill this month that clarified some language.

Hasenbalg said he would have sought moving MERI to Rutgers regardless of what was in the law. "It just makes a lot of sense for both parties to do this," he said.

MERI will continue to operate out of its offices and laboratory in Lyndhurst’s DeKorte Park. No staff changes are expected and the institute’s longtime director, Francisco Artigas, is expected to continue in that capacity. The transfer to Rutgers will take place from September to March, officials said.

Sports authority officials refused to divulge Thursday how much funding the institute receives, saying they had to wait until the agreement with Rutgers is finalized. But documents obtained by The Record show MERI’s budget was $1.2 million in 2014. It has a staff of about 10.

Those who work with MERI’s staff said they were pleased with the move.

"It’s the best possible outcome for MERI," said Bill Sheehan, head of the Hackensack Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group. "I think they can really benefit from being attached to Rutgers. They’ll be able to go after more funding, more grants."

At its meeting Thursday, the sports authority also unveiled a second partnership with a higher-education institution, passing a resolution for Bergen Community College to take over operation of the William D. McDowell Observatory, which is also at DeKorte Park. The observatory, open since 2008, has averaged about 3,000 visitors a year.

The college’s faculty will lead the observatory’s public-viewing nights, which have been on hold since January. Evening viewings will resume Aug. 5 from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m., and continue every Wednesday.

Hasenbalg, said the partnerships with Rutgers and Bergen Community College represent proof of the agency’s commitment to the Meadowlands Commission’s legacy as a steward of the wetlands.

"We want to be not only respectful of them, but we wanted to make sure that we don’t compromise the great work that’s been done," he said. "I view this as not only doing that but also allowing us to actually do more in terms of the environmental mission of this agency."