Public comment to Environmental Justice Executive Order No. 23 Guidance

This is the full text of the comment submitted today to  eo23@dep.nj.gov.

Thank you for allowing me to make a public comment at the Bridgeton NJ meeting on March 11, 2019 . Please allow me to add this written comment to summarize and highlight the shortcomings of environmental justice in New Jersey that I hope to bring to the Governor’s attention. I’ve had an absurdly unfortunate first-hand exposure to environmental injustice by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and, more recently, the New Jersey Attorney General’s office. The purpose of this writing is to supplement a verbal statement I gave on March 11 at a Listening Session focused on Governor Murphy’s Executive Order No. 23 on environmental justice. My stories below offer timely comment in response to the “Environmental Justice Executive Order No. 23 Guidance”.

Lack of Environmental Justice for Money Island NJ

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 and quality of life challenges and disproportionate burden of compliance with state regulations.

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 occasionally speak with senior 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 are ignored here

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 signifanct 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.

My personal experience with environmental injustice by NJDEP

Rejected bribe attempt

My first unfortunate exposure to NJDEP injustice began in 2010 when a woman who did not know me came to my house to dispute the verbal instructions I was given by other NJDEP officials and our local building inspector. I was fixing a broken dock and bulkhead. A short time later, maybe 2-3 weeks, a man came who obviously knew who I was said he could fix it with a direct payment to him. I reasoned that there was no way he could no of my predicament without ‘inside’ connection to the NJDEP person who visited me earlier. He specifically said that he represented the NJDEP and that the payment must be in cash. He did not give an amount that I was supposed to pay. I recognized it as a bribe and said that I would have no part in that scheme. A neighbor later told me that he was facing the same type of attempted bribe solicitation. That combination of interactions led to my application for a “Zane exemption” to avoid the need for permitting. That application was eventually denied, several years later, for the implausible reason that me and all my six neighbors moved our bulkheads from their original position. Our former State Senator wrote a letter asking the NJDEP commissioner to open a line of communication to negotiate this misunderstanding. I challenged the plain lack of credibility of the NJDEP excuse with a higher level official. He did not dispute my points said he would get back to me. He never did. He was then transferred to another job and says this matter is no longer in his jurisdiction. Over the years I’ve told the story of attempted bribery to many people in government and law enforcement. Almost no one seems surprised and nobody ever offered to take any action.

NJDEP entrapment

The second disastrous integration came in 2012-2013 in the month before and after superstorm Sandy. I made a written proposal for the state to acquire land that I proposed to buy from a bankruptcy trustee for transfer to the state at my inherent cost. I saw this proposal as a way where the state might acquire open space property at a lower than market price and I might be able to recover what the former owners owed me that I wouldn’t otherwise recover in the bankruptcy. Officially the proposal was under consideration but in private verbal communications the NJDEP officials gave every indication that the proposal would be successful. The state kept the offer open for about five years before declining interest in the properties. They declined interest in the properties on the same day that they notified me of their intent to prosecute Baysave for violations on the properties offered. I referred to this action of leading me on as a trap for enforcement action as “NJDEP entrapment” in later court filings.

Participation with US attorney’s investigation

Following superstorm Sandy there were a handful of investigations of credible accusations of government fraud. A neighbor said that he was working with a US attorney from New York and asked if I would give a supporting statement. I gave an interview by telephone but never received interrogatories, a subpoena or anything else in writing related to this. The interview focused on an earlier death threat I received that claimed to be from a government official. I told the investigating attorney of the death threats I received, I gave her the caller ID where the one telephone threat, and indicated how they could verify my report with an earlier NJ state police report. I never heard anything more except that my neighbor said the US attorney decided to not prosecute the case “because there was not enough money involved”.

Ignoring erosion and altered water flow risk

From 2004 until 2014 I was involved as a citizen in the planning of a bulkhead intended to save our community from sea level rise. The original engineering plans were modified around 2015 “because we didn’t have the money”, according to the project engineer. A different private engineer said the altered plans would have devastating erosion effect on the adjacent properties (my properties) due to increased water flow past the adjacent property. I expressed my concerns in a formal timely comment on the project submitted to NJDEP. Initially the project engineer offered to add some features to mitigate the damage of the altered project design. Later he told me that he that a superior in government prohibited from speaking to me. NJDEP never answered the erosion risk inquiries that I submitted by certified mail and follow up telephone calls. The visible damage in 2017 and 2018 resulting from this lack of appropriate project risk management is shocking to those who have lived here for many years.

Manipulated water quality report

In 2014 the NJDEP issued an odd local water quality report. Having an educational background in natural sciences and some aspects of this water testing field, I recognized the testing methods as scientifically unsound. The preliminary issued report was loaded with factual errors. It appeared to be more political propaganda than science. I spoke with the report’s author several times who promised to discuss the matter after the final report was published. I arranged an interview for the scientist with a local reporter. The scientist then said he was forbidden from talking to me or any reporter about the false water quality report. Downe Township later hired its own researchers to oppose the obviously bad findings of the state’s report.

Denial of arbitration

NJDEP launched a series of ‘notice of violation’ complaints against properties owned by Baysave (later owned by me). Some of the complaints are valid and some are errors. Several people inside and outside of government told me that these matters are typically resolved through arbitration. I made a formal application for arbitration. The NJDEP denied my application for arbitration. The NJDEP official who runs the arbitration process said this was the first time in her long tenure that the state had denied an arbitration hearing. I do not know the reason that the request was denied. I only know that it is rare and unjust.

Ganging up with the Attorney General

The NJDEP is using the virtually unlimited manpower, budget and legal muscle of the state’s Attorney General to bully me nd make it impossible to fight their past misdeeds and false claims. In late 2018 the NJDEP and the Attorney General teamed up to close our businesses because I did not have the money to advance pending land use permit applications. As a result, the six or several water-based small businesses that operated from our property are now closed. We were financially ravaged by superstorm Sandy and have not yet recovered. The timeline demanded for payment of legal permitting costs demanded by the Attorney General are impossible.  We all agree that we all want the same outcome – full compliance with all land use permit regulations – but we disagree on the consequences of that process taking longer than the state demands. I am using this story as a textbook case of environmental injustice; bad behavior by government against its most vulnerable people.

Denial of participation in related environmental programs

NJ Clean Marina Program – In 2014 I took a lead role in engaging local residents, business owners and visitors to participate in New Jersey’s Green Marina Program. It was important to our educational mission to change the culture and thinking of the local waterfront community to be more aware of environmental issues. It took about two years and cost Baysave and its neighbors about $3,500 to complete the program that transformed our local operations. At the completion of the final inspection, the program administrator told me they “had run out of funding” and could not certify us under the program. Two years later he admitted privately that an unnamed NJDEP official blocked our participation in this program.

New Jersey Sea Grant Pump Out Station Program – The most basic need of humans in a waterfront community is a waste handling system. In 2013 we partnered with professional firms firm to design a waste handling system like those used at similar marinas. We had trouble getting final approval to construct the system. In 2017 the program administrator admitted that NJDEP official blocked the approval but declined to name the official who took this action.

I suspect, based on third-hand reports, but have no proof that NJDEP bad actors played a role in our difficulties gaining acceptance into other programs that would otherwise lead to environmental compliance and sustainability.

No response from state executives

I’ve personally made calls, emails, web forms, tweets, and letters to the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Attorney General asking for a opportunity to address these concerns of unjust actions by state officials. The number of attempted communications exceeds 20. In 2018 I asked the former State Senator’s office for assistance in reaching the decision makers on environmental injustice but that request was denied. None of my communications have been answered. It seems clear that the pattern of neglect shows willful intent of state government at the highest levels to avoid addressing these issues of environmental injustice.

Suggestions

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 collaberation with simple common-sense steps:

  1. 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 and many others 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 the modest income residents like me and taking away valuable time and financial resources simply because they 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.

In summary, I am asking the Governor of the State of New Jersey to “call off the dogs” of hostile legal action by the Attorney General against the state’s most vulnerable citizens, a community noted as a low income outlier in the Department of Community Affairs’ Municipal Revitalization Index, struggling with the devastating effects of climate change. Instead, we should resolve this through negotiation. I am asking the NJDEP to come to the negotiating table ready to discuss sources of financial resources and a realistic timetable to reach the end result that we all want: full compliance with all land use regulations. This pattern of environmental injustice is a solvable issue. There is no need for the state to be ruining lives and businesses simply because of the slow pace of post-Sandy economic recovery here at Money Island. It is wrong and unjust for the state to treat those of us who contribute so much to the long term sustainability our environment as common criminals simply because we lack the full financial resources to immediately meet state land use requirements.

We have the resources, know-how and commitment to work together through the Plan to address this environmental injustice. All it takes to get started is leadership from the top to interrupt the pattern of bad behavior.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss or provide more information on any of these points. Thank you for the opportunity to submit these comments.

Tony Novak

Controller of Baysave Association

Money Island, New Jersey

tnovak@baysave.org

(856) 447-3576