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N.J. Environmental Justice Advisory Council: Sandy Recommendations

March 21, 2013
Commissioner Robert Martin
NJ Department of Environmental Protection
401 East State Street
Trenton, NJ 08625
Dear Commissioner Martin,
During the Environmental Justice Advisory Council (EJAC) meeting on March 5, EJAC members identified a number of serious EJ concerns related to the recovery from Superstorm Sandy. We are writing to urge you and other members of the Department, in your various roles, to take these concerns into account and to manage the recovery so as to protect our state’s most vulnerable communities during the recovery from Sandy and from the threats posed by future storms, severe weather events, and other climate change-related phenomena.
Our points are as follows:
• Improve emergency communications systems and invest in community- level communications capacity. Emergency communications systems in EJ communities should be improved, to warn residents whose first language is not English and who lack access to wireless communications about threats to their health and safety due to issues such as toxic exposures, sewage treatment plant malfunctions, and other environmental health threats. Evacuation and emergency preparedness/response procedures should also be improved. To strengthen these communications capabilities, we recommend that DEP and other state agencies invest primarily in building relationships and networks for this purpose with community leaders in nonprofit, community-based, faith-based and other neighborhood organizations, and not primarily in billboards or other electronic communication networks. Local institutions on the ground in EJ communities are the primary means through which information is shared, particularly during and after disasters.
• Prioritize funding to implement ‘green infrastructure’ projects in urban communities at a meaningful scale. As repairs and changes are made to various forms of infrastructure, the state should make substantial investments in ‘green infrastructure’ in addition to the traditional ‘hardening’ of infrastructure. For example, reducing the amount of impervious surfaces in heavily paved urban areas can reduce and mitigate flooding potential in these communities. In cases such as the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission and other water and sewerage facilities, the upgrading of these facilities should include green infrastructure features at scale – not as demonstration projects – as a supplement to berms and seawalls. Also, investments in greening urban waterfronts such as the Passaic River waterfront would provide flood protection, storm water improvement measures, and much needed recreation space for environmental justice communities in the area.
• Conduct an analysis on EJ issues resulting from climate change. We know for certain that New Jersey’s EJ communities will experience more extended heat waves, rising sea levels, increasing numbers of severe storms and floods and other climate-related impacts. DEP should identity the most likely EJ impacts related to climate change and develop plans to address these.
• Use existing data to identify EJ communities most likely to be at high risk of toxic contamination. Allocate disaster-response resources to these communities when weatherrelated disasters strike. DEP should use the Cumulative Impacts Tool to identify communities likely to be at high risk, and to prioritize toxics assessments, clean-up and disaster response in these neighborhoods. In addition, DEP should use its existing databases to catalog environmental hazards in EJ communities, such as toxic, brownfield or superfund sites, and should have a response plan in place when a flood, storm or other disaster strikes. Active brownfield and superfund sites were breached by Sandy’s floodwaters and it is likely that EJ communities were at increased risk due to this.
• Proactively establish protocols to reduce toxic hazards in EJ communities in the wake of floods and severe storms. Given the certainty that EJ communities will experience increased incidence of flooding as precipitation and storm patterns continue to intensify, DEP should create processes to expedite and prioritize the removal of toxic substances and household hazardous waste in the wake of these occurrences as well as respond to and remove floodwaters containing fuel oil in residences. The DEP should coordinate these efforts with the US EPA and act quickly in the aftermath of storms to deploy response and assessment teams to EJ communities with high densities of residential and industrial activities in close proximity.
• Maintain, and do not weaken, existing permitting requirements in EJ communities. Amend permitting processes to address threats to the integrity and security of permitted sites due to climate instability. Regulatory and permitting processes in EJ communities should not be weakened or compromised to expedite storm clean-up, as this would represent endangerment of public health. We are aware that DEP has, in certain cases, used the Waiver Rule to expedite permitting and that the Recovery & Rebuilding Plan recommends that the state should "streamline" the permitting processes. EJAC members urge DEP to not engage in activities that endanger EJ communities solely to expedite rebuilding.
In addition, permitting processes and requirements should be amended to include an additional level of scrutiny to ensure that companies seeking permits in EJ communities provide information about their plans to protect the surrounding community from harm due to the compromising of their facility during severe weather events. All facilities in an EJ community and within a flood zone should revise their Emergency Preparedness Plans or Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure Plans (SPCC) to factor in consideration of storm surges or other extreme climate events.
• Conduct public health monitoring in EJ communities in the wake of severe weather events. EJ communities suffer from dangerously high levels of toxic substances. Floods, hurricanes and severe weather events threaten to re-distribute these substances around EJ communities, putting community members at risk. EJAC recommends that public health monitoring and screening be conducted in the wake of major storms, floods and other disasters to enable the identification of disease clusters or other impacted groups in EJ communities. NJDEP should partner with the Department of Health and Senior Services to also track exposure to indoor mold and other indoor contaminants resulting from Sandy and conduct a grassroots outreach effort to assess and inform residents and workers about how to mitigate these exposures after a storm.
While Superstorm Sandy caused extensive devastation, it presents an opportunity for the state to implement a recovery and rebuilding plan that doesn’t replicate some of the hazardous conditions which subjected certain populations to disproportionate pollution burdens, making them more vulnerable to the impacts from severe weather events, such as Superstorm Sandy. EJAC urges DEP to take a systematic approach to incorporate green infrastructure and technology into EJ communities, and to ensure that polluting facilities proximate to EJ communities use inherently safer technology and take added precautionary steps to protect these communities from harm when severe weather occurs again.
Valorie Caffee

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