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TRENTON — In a ruling that could affect tens of thousands of contaminated sites in New Jersey, a state appeals court Friday said the Department of Environmental Protection does not have the authority to require owners or operators of industrial sites to certify the land is “clean” before they are sold and redeveloped.

Environmentalists called the decision a “major setback” in cleaning up contaminated sites in New Jersey and said this was an unintended consequence of legislation that was supposed to help less polluted sites get cleaned up quickly.

Acknowledging the gravity of its decision, the three-judge appellate panel said no action can be taken on the sites for 30 days, giving time for a potential appeal to the state Supreme Court.

“We conclude that the department, despite its important regulatory role and its expertise over environmental matters, acted in the present context beyond its legislatively delegated powers,” Judge Jack Sabatino wrote in the 36-page decision.