A new online mapping tool introduced Monday allows New Jerseyans who live in neighborhoods with low-income households or a sizable minority population to see how pollution — from smog levels to drinking water violations — affects their communities.
The mapping tool is part of the state’s rollout of environmental justice rules that require greater scrutiny of proposals to build a factory, power plant or other facilities in neighborhoods that have historically been overburdened with pollution.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has detailed information on pollution in 3,184 census blocks in 310 municipalities that are considered overburdened, in all 21 counties.
“When you have information, then you’re able to make informed decisions about your quality of life, your community, your neighborhood,” said Kandyce Perry, director of the DEP’s Office of Environmental Justice. “Without that information, how could you weigh in?”
The mapping tool allows members of the public to enter an address to see if they are in an overburdened neighborhood. From there, they can get pollution and public health information via a tab called “Stressor Summary.” There are 26 categories of “stressors” on a community, ranging from lead exposure and soot levels in the air to contaminated sites and sewage overflows.
Other maps on the website show major polluting facilities across the state, including incinerators, scrap metal facilities, power plants, landfills and garbage transfer stations. The tool can be found at https://bit.ly/3xoVpyw.
The new rules, which are being published Monday in the state register, are a hallmark of Gov. Phil Murphy’s environmental agenda and would affect residents in more than half of the state’s municipalities.
Business groups have said the rules may halt economic development in places where it’s most needed. Supporters say it will help residents living in communities that have borne a greater level of pollution, and the public health risks and lowered life expectancy that go along with it.
“It’s going to feel too big, too fast, too soon for some,” DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette said at a briefing on the rules last week, referring to the business community. “And it’s going to feel too little, too slow, too late for others.”
The rules allow the DEP to deny a permit if it finds that the cumulative environmental or public health impact of a project would be higher in the overburdened community rather than other non-burdened New Jersey communities.
The economic impact of a new facility will not be considered when making a determination. But the rules allow the DEP latitude in permitting when it comes to projects that “serve a compelling public interest,” such as addressing an essential environmental, health or safety need in a community.
“This rule will be debated, contested and refined in the months and years to come,” LaTourette said.
The criteria used to classify a community as overburdened cuts a wide swath in New Jersey and results in some surprising designations. Parts of some of the richest towns in New Jersey are on the list, including Alpine, Saddle River, Millburn, Rumson and Colts Neck.
That’s because even in those towns, some census blocks meet the definition of overburdened as drafted by lawmakers — at least 35% of households in the census block are low-income, or at least 40% of residents identify as minority, or at least 40 % of households have limited English proficiency.
“Overburdened block groups exist in all parts of the state, north, south, urban, rural, suburban and, yeah, in places where the municipality’s income level is above the poverty line,” Perry said.
On Monday, a group of environmentalists who have lived in overburdened communities called the publishing of the new draft rules a “critically important milestone” and urged they be adopted swiftly.
“For far too long some of the worst actors have lied or bought their way into the good graces of a few key people and claimed that their ‘back room’ deals were community engagement,” said Melissa Miles, executive director of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance “Even now some communities expect polluting industries to operate in obscurity and without their input. That all ends with the implementation of the EJ Law.”
Power plant proposal
Despite being published Monday in the New Jersey Register, the rules are still only proposed and have to go through a public comment period. They are not expected to be adopted until the end of the year at the earliest.
That means they don’t apply to facility proposals already being evaluated by the DEP, including a controversial plan by the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission to build a gas-fired power plant in Newark. It is considered one of the biggest tests for the Murphy administration’s rhetoric on environmental justice.
At a briefing last week, LaTourette confirmed that the rules wouldn’t apply to the power plant proposal, but said an administrative order he issued would subject the plan to the spirit of the rules. Opponents say that it’s not nearly as strict a review.
The proposal has generated significant opposition from community and environmental groups, which say it goes against everything the concept of environmental justice stands for. If built, it will be located in and near low-income and minority communities that are already getting significant air pollution from Port Newark, a nearby incinerator, other power plants and some of the busiest truck traffic in the US
The commission says the power plant would be used only for emergencies and is needed in case a catastrophic weather event knocks out power, as was the case when Superstorm Sandy hit the plant in 2012, causing 840 million gallons of raw sewage to pour into Newark Bay and surrounding waterways.
The commission recently said it would add more renewable energy sources elsewhere to help offset the emissions.
Scott Fallon has covered the COVID-19 pandemic since its onset in March 2020. To get unlimited access to the latest news about the pandemic’s impact on New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.