Out of respect for the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and the many who came before them, the LRWP is pausing our typical monthly content to give space for all of us to reckon, to listen, to learn, and to act.
The Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership stands in solidarity with those protesting police brutality and systemic racial injustices. Our work to address these societal wrongs is rooted in Social Equity and Environmental Justice.
Environmental injustice is term that describes how people of color and poor communities have borne disproportionate harm from pollution and environmental risks, and the discriminatory systems that have perpetuated those inequities.
George Floyd’s last words “I can’t breathe,” uttered under the knee of an officer of the peace, are as symbolic of our environmental injustices as they are of our history of racism in policing. “I can’t breathe” has been spoken by hundreds of thousands before George Floyd in the context of systemic racism that results in higher asthma rates in communities of color, and more recently, higher incidence of COVID-19 in communities of color.
The LRWP believes that community work to address these injustices requires that we relearn our shared history. We must ask ourselves: How has my choice of where and how I live contributed to these abiding injustices? What are my blind spots? What specific actions can I take to make this a more just world?
Going forward the LRWP will double down on efforts to understand how land use decision-making at the municipal level perpetuates environmental inequities at a broader scale. In the short term:
We will continue to pressure NJDEP to act on their (2009) legislated mandate to rank every contaminated site in order of risk and urgency with respect to environmental health, particularly environmental health of communities of color and the most vulnerable. The “Remedial Priority System” was to serve as a corrective to market-driven remediation that prioritizes clean-up of the most economically desirable contaminated sites. 11 years later however the agency still has not published this list
We will continue our water quality monitoring and reporting at non-bathing public beach access sites along the Raritan River that are not monitored by NJDEP or local or County Departments of Health. We focus on these sites in part because they are disproportionately accessed by people of color. We need volunteers. Please volunteer!
We will continue our research into the extent to which our local communities of color are more likely than white communities to be at risk of hazards related to climate change and new discriminatory lending practices called “bluelining.” (report coming June 2020).
The LRWP commits to educating ourselves about historic and system racism, supporting those who are imagining a new path forward for our state and nation through structural change. Please consider joining us in following these important environmental justice advocates, environmentalists of color and other leaders we are listening to on twitter and Instagram.
Rhiana Gunn-Wright. @rgunns. Ms. Gunn-Wright is lead policy architect of the Green New Deal designed to tackle climate change in a way that delivers justice and jobs.
Tara Houska. @zhaabowekwe. Ms. Houska is an attorney who fights for Indigenous rights and justice and serves as the national campaigns director of Honor the Earth, a US-based non-profit that campaigns for Indigenous environmental justice.
WE ACT for EJ. @weact4ej. WE ACT for Environmental Justice has been combating environmental racism and building healthy communities for people of color since 1988.
The LRWP is often asked to identify top environmental issues facing our Central New Jersey watershed communities, and every year we develop a “Top 10” list of concerns. Through 2019 we feature one concern a month on our website and explore that issue (and potential solutions) in more detail. In our March essay we bring attention to the state’s failure to act on a mandate to rank contaminated sites. We also consider how New Jersey’s “Home Rule” decision making perpetuates inequitable restoration in our communities. We suggest watershed planning as a more equitable approach to land use decision-making.
NJDEP’s failure to act on this mandate perpetuates environmental injustices and is in violation of the law. We must hold our state agencies accountable for their failure to advance equitable outcomes. We also must consider how land use decision-making at the municipal level perpetuates environmental inequities at a broader scale.
In New Jersey, decisions about how land in a particular municipality is protected, developed, or restored are made by the municipality’s planning board and zoning board. The decision makers that sit on these local boards weigh needs for community and environmental health against the often competing goals of increasing the tax base and expanding or providing new services for municipal residents and visitors. These boards determine how to protect a town (or certain sections of a town) against siting of undesirable uses like power plants, sewage treatment facilities, landfills and incinerators. And they are often charged with making decisions about how to protect against flooding or other natural disasters. There are few tools for planning and zoning boards to use to ensure that their decisions don’t propagate local inequities. Furthermore, because of New Jersey’s “Home Rule” bias in land use decision-making, municipalities are not required to take into consideration the impact on regional growth patterns, existing or planned land uses in adjacent municipalities, or watershed and larger ecological systems impacts.
Examples of undesired regional impacts of local land use decisions include flood control decisions that displace flood waters to neighboring municipalities, and fragmentation of habitat that compromises regional environmental health. Local impacts are felt in low income communities that are not only not prioritized for environmental clean-ups, but continue to be identified for siting of locally undesirable land uses (LULUs). Recognizing this, in January the New Jersey Senate Environment and Energy Committee advanced Senate Bill 1700, which concerns environmental permitting in burdened communities. The “Environmental Justice” Bill is specific to the siting of polluting facilities (power plants, sewage treatment plants, landfills and similar), and would give individuals in our poorest communities the right to petition NJ Department of Environmental Protection for additional environmental and health impacts assessments and a public hearing on permitting processes.
Is this this the best approach we have to righting these wrongs? While any one of us should be able to bring attention to inequities in land use decision making, should the responsibility of designating a community as “burdened” fall on individuals or even on individual communities?
Perhaps other land management approaches, like regional or watershed based planning, can better serve as bulwark against provincial Home Rule interests. These approaches might also balance land uses consistent with human health, environmental, equity, and other goals.
Watershed planning demands integrated thinking and coordination. And watershed management of large ecosystems is inherently science-driven. Climate change has brought attention to the need for science-based land management. Watershed land management is a science-based approach, and watersheds play an increasingly important role in establishing a context for federal, state, and local policy. As such there is increased opportunity for watershed-level planning to guide land use decision-making in the state. Core objectives in watershed management are directly related to water (flood control, water quality and quantity, etc.). Other important objectives include maintenance of biological diversity, wildlife management, urban metabolism, restoration, general environmental preservation, recreation, economic development, and Environmental Equity.
We welcome your thoughts on how watershed-level planning (or other approaches) might be deployed to prioritize action for restoration, advance Environmental Equity, and improve the integration of science with land use decision-making.