By Michele S. Byers
It’s the nation’s most densely populated state, with the most Superfund sites, and sometimes called Cancer Alley. This state we’re in faces many environmental challenges, including air pollution, threats to clean drinking water and sprawl.
But New Jersey is also a leader in open space and farmland preservation, and still rightfully retains its Garden State nickname.
As we enter 2020, how is New Jersey’s environment doing? The past year brought in some good progress with clean energy, land preservation, stopping harmful pipelines and prosecuting industrial polluters. But there were setbacks too.
Here are some key highlights of 2019 wins, losses and mixed results:
As a coastal state, New Jersey is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Alarmingly, a new study by Rutgers University and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection predicted that sea levels along New Jersey’s shoreline could rise as much as 6.3 feet by the year 2100.
Swift action to mitigate climate change is clearly needed – and New Jersey is responding.
In 2019, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration released a new draft of the Energy Master Plan with goals to reduce emissions and achieve 100% clean energy by 2050.
The plan is based on a cutting-edge energy modelling study that calls for fossil fuels to be phased out of electric generation by 2050, replaced by offshore wind, solar, improved energy storage and increased energy efficiency.
These measures can reduce carbon emissions while maintaining a reliable electric supply and generating thousands of good, local jobs. And it’s affordable.
The past year also saw the strengthening of the state’s Global Warming Response Act. The changes now require the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to ensure that the state stays on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% economy-wide by 2050.
Preserving land – especially forests that absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere – is an important natural solution to climate change. This past year, thousands of acres of forests, wetlands, meadows and farms were preserved.
New Jersey also began reaping the increased benefits of a 2014 ballot measure that constitutionally dedicated a percentage of state Corporate Business Tax revenues for open space, farmland, Blue Acres and historic preservation programs. For fiscal 2020, the percentage of revenue dedicated to preservation increased from four to six percent.
In other good news, the state recently announced its intention to preserve the nearly 1,400-acre Holly Farm in Cumberland County, an ecologically-sensitive area at the southern end of the Pine Barrens that protects local water quality and provides habitat for many rare plants and animals.
And the state’s Blue Acres program for buying and restoring flood-prone residential properties recently purchased its 700th property since 1995.
In a win for New Jersey, the proposed PennEast pipeline through Hunterdon and Mercer counties was dealt a serious blow.
The Third Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals found in favor of New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s appeal, ruling that PennEast cannot legally condemn state-preserved lands to build a gas pipeline. 42 of the properties targeted for condemnation by PennEast are state-preserved open space and farmland. The company plans to petition the U.S. Supreme Court for review.
In another victory, the South Jersey Gas Pipeline – one of two gas pipelines proposed to cut through the Pine Barrens – has been stopped.
The project already faced significant delays due to legal challenges brought by the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and others. During the past year, the B.L. England power plant scrapped plans to convert from oil to natural gas. With the purported purpose of the South Jersey Gas pipeline gone, Attorney General Grewal declared the project invalid.
But a second Pine Barrens pipeline, the Southern Reliability Link, is moving forward.
Despite numerous pending legal challenges, and evidence from gas experts that it is not needed, the Southern Reliability Link pipeline began construction in 2019 and is now nearly complete. This project undermines the integrity of the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan, and is still subject to unresolved litigation.
In a big victory for clean water in 2019, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection designated nearly 750 additional miles of rivers and streams throughout the state as “Category 1,” a move that will significantly increase protection of these waterways.
But the past year also saw some major water quality failures, including massive algal blooms in Lake Hopatcong and other waterways, pervasive lead in the drinking water in Newark and other places, and plastic pollution in rivers and the ocean.
Single-use plastics, including bags and straws, are polluting waterways and causing serious harm to wildlife. Over 30 New Jersey municipalities have already banned single-use bags, but state legislation is needed. Legislative leaders should make this a top priority.
Clean water is the underpinning of special land use planning and rules in the Highlands and Pine Barrens regions.
The Murphy administration nominated many good candidates to fill seats on the Pinelands Commission and Highlands Council this past year. But the nominees have yet to be confirmed by the Senate.
Stopping Industrial Polluters
In a bold move for the environment, the Murphy administration is actively pursuing industrial polluters responsible for contamination. Led by Attorney General Grewal, the administration has filed 12 natural resource damage suits against industrial polluters, seeking compensation for harm to the environment. In comparison, the previous administration filed none.
While there were many wins in New Jersey, the administration in Washington continued its unprecedented rollback of environmental protections.
Among the most harmful are the rescinding of a rule regulating the leaking and uncontrolled release of methane from oil and natural gas operations, attacks on the Endangered Species Act, the withdrawal from the Clean Power Plan, and the removal of protections under the Clean Water Act for ephemeral and intermittent streams.
All of the rollbacks, if implemented, would have harmful impacts on New Jersey’s air, water, wildlife and public health.
In one of the few bits of good news from Washington in 2019, Congress permanently reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which provides funding for public lands and parks all over America. Efforts will resume in 2020 to secure full funding for this important program.
Let’s take a moment to reflect on the successes of 2019 and toast to an even better environmental record for 2020.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in Morristown.