By Rachel Brown
For more than 50 years, community leaders and researchers have been drawing attention to disproportionate environmental burden and health disparities in low-income and communities of color. Here in New Jersey and as far back as 1998, the state has been working to systematically address Environmental Justice as an overarching public policy goal. Most recently, Governor Murphy issued Executive Order 23 in 2018, and, in 2020, New Jersey enacted the state’s Environmental Justice law which requires NJDEP to consider environmental and public health impacts of certain facilities on overburdened communities when reviewing certain permit applications.
Municipalities have an important role to play in advancing Environmental Justice (EJ). Municipalities control critical land use decisions that affect the design and function of communities, including decisions pertaining to allowable industrial and commercial uses, zoning related to location of residential areas in relationship to sources of pollution and hazards, and engagement of low-income and residents of color in critical decision-making that may affect environmental burden, socio-economic status and health. Additionally, municipalities have jurisdiction over decisions that may influence the extent to which overburdened communities have access to environmental benefits such as parks and open space.
The statutory criteria for determining an overburdened community identifies 310 of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities as having one or more census tracts deemed to be overburdened. However, no guidance is currently available for New Jersey’s municipalities that are committed to advancing EJ, which is why the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is collaborating with the Rutgers University Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy to develop a web-based guide that provides a planning framework that can be used by municipalities to plan for Environmental Justice in their communities. The intent of this collaboration between DEP and Rutgers Environmental Analysis and Communications Group (EAC) is to develop municipal EJ Action Plan guidance that is:
- Easy to access and use by elected and appointed municipal officials, members of municipal boards, councils and other committees, and professionals working to support municipal planning and decision-making.
- Grounded in principles of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion;
- Reliant, to the greatest extent possible, on publicly available data and resources; and
- Supportive of municipal involvement in local implementation of the state’s Environmental Justice law as well as municipal leadership in other areas including public health, climate change, engagement of residents, comprehensive planning and other areas of municipal policy, planning and decision-making.
As part of this effort, the project team has conducted background research to review examples of municipal EJ action plans and guidance outside of New Jersey to identify innovative elements for possible inclusion in guidance. Additionally, the project team has assembled a Project Working Group (PWG) to advise the research team during the course of the project which is comprised of state interagency and USEPA representatives, a representative of the NJ Environmental Justice Advisory Council and members that are engaged in local level Environmental Justice issues, supporting municipal-level planning and decision-making, and/or are expert on issues related to environmental health and health equity.
Currently, the content of the guidance is under development and is set to be released fall of 2022.