By Jeanne Herb

Over the past year, the New Jersey State Policy Lab has provided support to a collaborative effort of the Rutgers University Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) to develop web-based guidance for municipalities to develop Environmental Justice Action Plans.  At the end of September 2022, the team completed version 1.0 of the guidance which will be posted on the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) website, when fully approved by the NJDEP. The project was supported by an active Project Working Group that included New Jersey environmental justice advocates, municipal officials, and representatives of state and federal agencies.

The web-based municipal guidance is designed to support and enhance municipalities’ role in advancing New Jersey’s 2020 Environmental Justice Law (N.J.S.A. 13:1D-157, et seq.), which requires the NJDEP to evaluate environmental and public health impacts of certain industrial facilities on overburdened communities. Given that municipalities are more knowledgeable about the specific needs of their community and the environmental factors that may affect them, they have the opportunity to play a significant role in addressing community quality of life. Municipalities have the ability to 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, through their Zoning and Planning Boards, municipalities have jurisdiction over decisions that may influence the extent to which overburdened communities have access to environmental benefits such as parks, open space, and resource allocation.

The guidance outlines five elements to a Municipal Environmental Justice Action Plan:

  • Adoption of a municipal resolution that demonstrates the municipality’s intent to plan for environmental justice and that outlines its approach for development of a municipal plan;
  • Preparation of a written stakeholder engagement plan with a specific emphasis on engagement of residents in overburdened communities which, as defined by the law, is based on criteria including minority status, limited English proficiency, and income;
  • Development of a burden assessment that involves analysis of available data on environmental and public health stressors in overburdened communities, as well as engaging residents of overburdened communities to identify factors that they believe cause undue environmental burden;
  • Establishment of a catalog of strategies that the municipality commits to undertake to address environmental and public health stressors in overburdened communities; and
  • Adoption of a plan for implementation of the identified strategies.

The guidance includes examples of strategies that municipalities can consider adopting within the confines of current federal and state laws.  For example, some of the strategies relate to municipal land use decision-making which can affect different types of uses (commercial, industrial, etc.) in overburdened communities.  It includes best practices for stakeholder engagement ensuring that the municipality’s efforts remove obstacles to meaningful participation by residents in overburdened communities.  It also outlines ways in which municipalities can ensure that residents of overburdened communities participate in local boards and commissions, and it also outlines ways in which municipalities can intersect its environmental justice efforts with its efforts to address natural hazards and changing climate conditions.

Some public policy challenges are likely to emerge once the forthcoming guidance is made public. The Project Working Group pointed out that, currently, there are no incentives for municipalities to plan for environmental justice planning and the extent to which municipalities will utilize the guidance is unknown.  The expectation is the guidance, once posted, will be undergoing continuous enhancement as municipalities use it and provide feedback.  To that end, the guidance encourages users to provide feedback on it so that the NJDEP can ensure its efficacy and deployment.

Jeanne Herb is Executive Director of the Environmental Analysis & Communications Group at Rutgers University Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and Co-Director of the New Jersey Climate Change Resource Center.