Following are proposed comments to the executive order:
Executive Order No. 23 signed by Governor Phillip D. Murphy on April 20, 2018 recognized that, historically, New Jersey’s low-income communities have been disproportionately affected by environmental degradation that often leads to other serious problems beyond environmental issues, including housing challenges.
The NJDEP issued an Environmental Justice Draft Plan in January 2019 (hereafter “Plan”) and invited public comment on that plan to implement environmental justice policies in the state. This comment is submitted during the 60-day public comment period to receive input on the proposal.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” The EPA has further explained that:
“Fair treatment” means that no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies.
Money Island, Downe Township, Cumberland County
The small rural community known as Money Island New Jersey, is the smallest of five communities that make up Downe Township. We are located on the southwestern tip of the state, in rural Cumberland County that has historically been denied fair treatment with regard to environmental justice. The residents of this community are typically low income individuals who have not had access to meaningful involvement with respect to the implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. As a result, the community has born a disproportionate share of the negative consequences resulting from governmental operations and policies.
MRI Score and its implication
The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs utilizes a Municipal Revitalization Index (MRI) scoring system referred to in the Plan. Our local municipality Downe Township has a 2017 MRI Distress Score of 43.7, ranking it as #63 of the 565 municipalities (11th percentile most at risk) ranked by highest to lowest overall risk. Downe Township ranks as the #36 lowest per capita income municipality in the state (6th percentile lowest income). The data shows that our community falls within the category of those facing a disproportionately high burden of the issues related to environmental justice. Specifically, we recognize that our higher exposure to risks combined with our local lack of financial resources to deal with these risks exacerbates and compounds the problem. Anecdotally, I frequently speak with NJDEP officials in informal settings who acknowledge this disproportionate burden and the need to address it, yet I am not aware of any actual progress by the Department in doing so.
Lack of affordable housing
Lack of affordable housing in environmental justice communities is identified as one of the challenges recognized in the Plan. Our community has experienced rapid devaluation of properties due to the combination of environmental stress, lack of government responsiveness and lack of financial resources to address the problems. My own house went from a certified appraised value of $186,000 in 2006 to $5,000 in 2017. That’s a 97% devaluation. At the same time, we were hit with the massive costs of storm repair, including Sandy recovery, increased insurance and taxes and a lack of available programs to provide housing rehabilitation funding.
Lack of engagement by NJDEP
The Plan seeks better community engagement by state agencies. In 2014 then State Senator Van Drew wrote a letter (copy attached) to former NJDEP Commissioner Martin documenting the difficulties I had establishing communication and engagement with the Department with regard to the planned sustainable redevelopment of Money Island.
In 2017 I requested alternative dispute resolution to help address these issues of lack of engagement. NJDEP declined to participate in alternate dispute resolution to the surprise of the officials who run that program. I can’t think of a more pronounced example of lack of engagement of NJDEP than this. These examples, combined with my many other experiences, add up to a pattern of deliberate intent to disengage from the community’s efforts to address compliance and sustainability challenges.
Capacity building assistance for communities
The Plan seeks to improve capacity building assistance for communities. Please consider that our community have been lobbying the NJDEP for more than a decade on basic issues like the need for water and sewer infrastructure, telephone and internet and more sustainable roadways. I see nothing to indicate that NJDEP intends to build the capacity in our community.
Goals of Environmental Justice Plan
The 2nd, 3rd and 4th stated goals of the Plan are “2. State agencies will routinely consider environmental justice impacts of their programs when developing and implementing program plans, regulations and policies”, 3. “State agencies will work together, through an inter-agency environmental council and cross agency workgroups, to develop and carry out targeted action plans to address environmental justice challenges and to leverage opportunities for improving conditions in environmental justice communities”, and “4. State agencies will coordinate their activities to provide effective communication and collaboration with environmental justice communities”.
Unfortunately, my experiences indicate exactly the opposite history:
- A) The NJDEP’s actions have not considered environmental justice impact. Most recently, for example, the Department’s use of NJ Attorney General Grewal’s Office to prosecute those who are recovering from Sandy and financially unable to rebuild quickly caused a number of small businesses to close or move out of the state. The state admits, for example, that Baysave’s contributors have made significant contributions to the recovery, sustainability and compliance efforts of this community yet seems to have o qualms in suing the company and its volunteers.
- B) My experience is that one office of NJDEP does not know what the other offices are doing. Often Department officials disagree and contradict each other As a practical matter, it has been impossible to confirm a statement made by one NJDEP official. In one instance, a NJDEP official and the local code enforcement officer told me that no permit was needed to repair a bulkhead. When the repair was complete another NJDEP official issued a violation notice for not having a permit. Then I applied for a Zane exemption after two officials said it would be granted. One gave verbal assurance that my application was approved but never sent written verification. When I followed up
- C) At a recent on-site meeting at Money Island with high level NJDEP officials they plainly stated that they see a lack of coordination among agencies and departments and admitted that the end result – and its impact on me – is nonsensical.
The Plan makes recommendations for each department or agency within NJDEP that include:
“Identification of existing programs that have a significant impact on environmental justice communities.” – In our community of Money Island, the program that would make the most immediate impact is approval of the NJ SeaGrant pump up station application. I have submitted this application four different times: 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017. At first our engineer said we were making progress but now I’m told that the application is blocked by an unnamed person at NJDEP. Improved wastewater handling for the boats and marina is critical to our community. I urge the Department to identify the person blocking this critical infrastructure application and have them speak with me and our engineers.
“Identification of opportunities to improve engagement and collaboration with environmental justice communities and to improve conditions in those communities”. – We see a plain and easy opportunity to improve engagement and collaboration with simple common-sense steps:
- Answer our repeated calls, emails and letters sent by my and the mayor of our municipality asking for clarification and direction on critical compliance and permitting issues. We can’t move forward without the Department’s input.
- When and if Commissioner McCabe visits Money Island again, I would welcome the opportunity for a casual discussion. I understand that she came and went this fall without speaking with any of us on site. I have met individually with many other higher level NJDEP officers here. Elected officials ranging from Senator Booker, former representative LoBiondo, former state Senator VanDrew, current state Senator Andrzejczak, Assemblyman Land, several former Assemblymen, our County Freeholders and our Mayor have all been involved in advising, planning and implementation of our community’s sustainable future. We are grateful that all of these leaders have taken the time to visit and advise us on the steps to help secure the future of our community. Yet I feel that top-down leadership from within NJDEP is still lacking on the specific Environmental Justice issues that we discuss.
- Deal with us directly rather than through the Attorney General’s office. Suing modest income residents like me and taking away valuable time and financial resources in the legal system simply because we can’t get permits issued fast enough to satisfy the state is despicable behavior in itself. The wasted time and money takes away valuable resources that would otherwise go toward our community’s compliance and redevelopment. But more importantly, it is counterproductive to achieving our common goals. It is the very opposite of Environmental Justice! We all want full compliance and a sustainable community as soon as possible. But the Department’s willingness to sue us with its virtually unlimited budget for lawyers and prosecution – scared away all of the interested and willing sources of redevelopment funding in our community. In short, the state’s shortsighted plan of taking legal action rather than work with us shot the state in the foot. I urge the Department to settle its legal actions against us and resume problem-solving through normal process of community planning meetings, application reviews and candid discussion.
I would welcome the opportunity to discuss or provide more information on any of these points. Thank you for the opportunity to allow me to submit these comments.
Tony Novak, controller
PO Box 333
Money Island NJ 08345