New Jersey DEP launches research vessel named for longtime former agency chief

Former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman and former state environmental commissioner Robert C. Shinn Jr. on board the new research vessel. The 32-foot catamaran, named for Shinn, will position research buoys in the state's inland waterways.

Under a blazing sun that had warmed Atlantic City to 86 degrees, former Gov. Christie Whitman joined state officials Friday in dedicating a 32-foot research vessel to former Environmental Protection Commissioner Robert C. Shinn Jr.   

“He was the best appointment I made” as governor, Whitman told 50 people gathered at Frank S. Farley State Marina as the gray catamaran bobbed at a dock behind her.

Whitman, who went on to serve as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, appointed Shinn EPA commissioner in 1994.

A former assemblyman and director of the Burlington County Board of Freeholders, Shinn served eight years as commissioner, the longest term to date.

“It’s not always easy balancing competing interests,” said Whitman, who praised Shinn for what she said was his ability to press aggressively for air and water quality programs without adversely impacting the state’s economy.

“I benefited enormously” from his dedication, said Whitman, who credited her own appointment to the EPA in 2001 to the programs Shinn put in place. She served for two years under President George W. Bush.

Bob Martin, the current DEP commissioner, joked that Shinn’s first bit of advice to him when he took over was, “Don’t screw it up.” Shinn set the standard for balancing economic and environmental interests, Martin said, and created an agency of committed employees that he said serves as a model for other states.

Among Shinn’s many contributions to environmental quality in New Jersey, he said, were programs that led to the acquisition of 115,000 acres of open space, an innovative recycling program in Burlington County that became the model for every other county, legislation that kept organized crime out of trash hauling, improved air quality monitoring, and extensive water testing in lakes and streams and coastal waterways.

Shinn in his remarks joked with some of the DEP employees in the crowd, read at length from several letters, and accepted a plaque from Dan Kennedy, assistant DEP commissioner for water resource management.  

“This is just overwhelming,” Shinn, 79, said, crediting much of his success as commissioner to his “tremendous” staff.

Whitman and Martin then escorted Shinn down the dock, where they boarded the vessel, built in Canada at a cost of $215,000. It is far from a yacht -- its utilitarian features include vertical sides, a flat deck equipped with a crane, and a glass-enclosed wheelhouse astern.  Rather than smash a bottle of champagne over the bow, Shinn and Whitman together tugged at a strip of dark cloth to reveal the name “Robert C. Shinn Jr.”  atop the deck house.        

Propelled by twin 250-horsepower outboard engines, and capable of speeds up to 40 knots, the Robert C. Shinn Jr. will be used by the DEP’s Bureau of Marine Water Management to position and tend to eight research buoys in the state’s inland waterways, including four in Barnegat Bay.

Ken Hayek, principal environmental technician for the marine water monitoring bureau and one of its skippers, said the Shinn does not collect or transmit data, but instead positions the buoys where needed and pulls them every three weeks for cleaning.

In the past, he said, his team had to wait on the state Bureau of Coastal Engineers’ Aids to Navigation team to place its buoys, which were not always a priority. Commissioning the Shinn, he said, “was an efficiency thing.”

Data from the buoys is available online at

The buoys’ sensors and probes transmit data every 15 minutes to the bureau, including information about water temperature, bacteria and oxygen levels, pH, chlorophyll, and salinity.

At the close of the naming ceremony, Whitman, when questioned, said she views President Trump’s steep cuts in the staff and budget of the EPA as “very problematic” and said she believes failure to address climate change would “affect human health … for generations.”