Gov. James J. Florio signed what he called the toughest water pollution law in the nation Wednesday, establishing fines of up to $1 million a day for violations.
"To those who would pollute our water, let me make it very clear: no more excuses, no more ifs and no more buts," Florio told environmentalists and other supporters of the bill on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, an Atlantic Ocean resort.
Asbury Park became a symbol of New Jersey's water pollution problems two summers ago, when discharges from an antiquated municipal sewage treatment plant repeatedly forced the closing of nearby beaches. The plant has since been replaced.
The tourism-dependent Jersey Shore also has been hurt in recent years by publicity about trash, medical waste and other debris washing onto beaches. The shutdown of a factory waste pipeline into the Atlantic Ocean and the dumping of sewage sludge also have been major issues.
The law raises to $250,000 the maximum criminal fine for individuals convicted of water pollution, and sets a maximum corporate fine for the worst cases at $1 million daily.
Individuals responsible for pollution that places a person "in imminent danger of death or serious injury" can go to prison for up to 20 years, under the law. Minor violators will be fined at least $1,000.
State environmental officials will be required to prosecute all major violators and will no longer be allowed to settle cases in exchange for promises to end polluting practices.
The law applies equally to industrial polluters and to government operators of sewage treatment plants.
Environmentalists said the stiff penalties were necessary because industry brushes off lesser fines as a cost of doing business.
Business groups, particularly the chemical industry, say the law concentrates too much on factory emissions and not enough on "non-point" pollution sources such as farming chemicals that wash into waterways.
Florio, a Democrat, said the new law gave New Jersey "the toughest clean water enforcement rules in the United States."