WASHINGTON — In the long list of hometown projects that New Jersey Democrats in Congress want to finance with federal money, one item stands out -- $210 million for a South Jersey sewage plant.
Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., has submitted that so-called earmark request, which represents the full cost of retrofitting an existing wastewater treatment plant to benefit Gloucester and Salem counties and jump-start the region's economy.
It's the biggest single earmark any New Jerseyan has submitted this year, and critics call the request egregious and an example of Washington excess. House Democrats are requesting earmarks for fiscal year 2011 but Republicans are not.
But even Andrews doesn't expect to get the entire $210 million from congressional appropriations committees, which review lawmakers' requests.
"We probably won't get the whole (amount), but you ask for the best you can get and make your case," he said. "Candidly . . . we don't expect to get 100 percent funding for it. But I think you start from there and then negotiate down."
The most that any lawmaker was able to get last year for a single hometown project was $20 million, said Steve Ellis, vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Andrews' $210 million earmark isn't the biggest he has seen, Ellis said.
"Any time you get into the nine figures . . . you are in kind of a rarified air," he said Thursday. "I would be surprised if he got more than a fraction of the money."
Gloucester and Salem have a lot of things going for them but lack the sewage infrastructure to become magnets for businesses, Andrews said.
The region has a sound road network led by Interstate 295 and a well-educated and trained population. Land is cheaper than most anywhere else along the prosperous and busy Washington-to-New York corridor.
But employers are reluctant to relocate to the area because of an antiquated sewer system, Andrews said. A new plant would dramatically expand the processing capacity for as many as 30 municipalities in the two counties, which are now served by smaller plants already operating at full capacity, according to Gloucester County Administrator Chad Bruner.
"This is what is holding us back," said Andrews, who has no other partners seeking the same earmark. "I do think that if (the sewage plant) is constructed that the investment would come."
In a year when public anger against perceived fiscal irresponsibility of the federal government is running high, the fate of any earmark is unclear. President Barack Obama also is asking Congress to give him the authority to trim earmarks from spending bills that reach his desk.
Even budgetary watchdog groups like the Concord Coalition say earmarks constitute only a small part of the country's fiscal problems.
"Earmarks receive a great deal of attention, though it is important to keep in mind that they account for less than 1 percent of the federal budget," Cliff Isenberg of the Concord Coalition wrote in an e-mail. "Even if all earmarks were to be eliminated tomorrow, much more would still need to be done to significantly reduce annual deficits that are currently over a trillion dollars."
Some critics say multimillion-dollar earmarks are rarely justifiable.
Andrews shouldn't be asking for such a huge chunk of federal change for a project that would benefit such a narrow slice of the Garden State, said Jerry Cantrell, president of the Common Sense Institute of New Jersey.
"It's like the bridge to nowhere -- it would benefit only a small number of people," Cantrell said, referring to an infamous, multimillion-dollar earmark for an Alaskan bridge that Congress later rescinded. "On the surface it sounds like a huge amount of pork."
If approved, the sewage plant earmark would enable Gloucester and Salem county officials to upgrade the existing DuPont plant in Carneys Point, across from Wilmington, Del., along the Delaware River.
Other proposals Gloucester County has considered over the years, including building a new plant from scratch, would cost more than twice what it would cost to retrofit the DuPont plant, Bruner said.
In addition to the plant being in an ideal location, DuPont already has state approval to dump 44 million gallons of treated water into the river each day. It's now discharging only 12 million to 15 million gallons per day, Bruner said.
The counties don't have a lease agreement with DuPont and haven't done the engineering and design work to upgrade the plant. Gloucester and Salem counties turned to New Jersey's congressional delegation to get full federal funding because the state doesn't have any money to kick in, Bruner said.
He acknowledged that seeking the full $210 million is like throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks.
"You could totally see a shutdown of growth, commercial and residential, if we don't address the sewer capacity in the future," Bruner warned. If it gets under way, the project would benefit a region that includes congressional districts represented by Andrews and Rep. Frank LoBiondo.
LoBiondo spokesman Jason Galanes confirmed that the Ventnor Republican received the $210 million funding request from Gloucester County.
"Congressman LoBiondo is always willing to help out South Jersey counties on projects important to public safety and health," Galanes wrote in an e-mail. "However . . . the House Republicans put forth a moratorium on earmarks for (fiscal year) 2011, until further reforms and transparency to the earmarking process can be put in place."