Democrat calls Gov. Murphy ‘Grinch’ over veto of Christmas tree bonfires bill

By: and - November 28, 2023 4:17 pm

Clinton used to hold an annual Christmas tree bonfire, before the Murphy administration barred such events. (Courtesy of Clinton)

Gov. Phil Murphy this week rejected a bipartisan bill that would have allowed for community Christmas tree bonfires, prompting one Democratic lawmaker to compare Murphy to the Grinch.

Murphy in a statement accompanying his Monday veto of the bill said that while he appreciates how holiday bonfires bring people together, attract tourists, and raise money for charity, burning trees ultimately harms vulnerable residents’ health and increases pollution. The measure passed the Legislature unanimously in June.

“There are many ways to celebrate the winter season, and I am confident that New Jersey’s vibrant and resourceful communities will find meaningful new traditions to bring people together without the harmful public health and environmental effects of open-air tree burning,” he said in the statement.

Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex), a prime sponsor of the bill, said the measure was inspired by an annual Christmas tree bonfire formerly hosted by Clinton, a town in Hunterdon County. Murphy’s fight against Christmas tree burnings is “such a Grinch thing to do in the scheme of things,” Zwicker said.

“This is such a tiny little thing. And the claim that it is somehow about public health is just so silly,” said Zwicker, a physicist and science educator.

Christmas tree burnings had previously been allowed under a 2017 administrative order from the Department of Environmental Protection if towns obtained the right permits, but the Murphy administration later barred them, citing safety reasons, negative health impacts, and toxic air pollution. The department encourages municipalities to dispose of trees in an environmentally friendly way, like mulching.

Zwicker said he and the bill’s co-sponsors called U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s office to see if Christmas tree burnings violate the federal Clean Air Act, and they were told they would not be a violation.

The burning of green plant matter releases air pollutants linked to adverse health effects, largely for people with heart, lung, and respiratory issues, Murphy said in his veto statement. This pollution also harms the environment and contributes to climate change, he said.

Zwicker agreed that the particulate matter created by burning Christmas trees is “real.” Still, he said he doesn’t see why it’s significantly worse than Clinton’s current practice of burning chemically treated wooden pallets instead of trees.

“It’s a small bill, but it was an important community-building bill at a time when we are struggling in a post-COVID world to build community,” Zwicker said. “We’re talking about a couple of dozen Christmas trees for a couple of hours. From a scientific perspective or from a community perspective, none of it makes any sense at all.”

An earlier version of this story should have said Zwicker’s inspiration for the bill was an annual bonfire in the Town of Clinton, not Clinton Township.

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

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