SOUTH TOMS RIVER — State and federal officials met with residents of South Toms River and surrounding communities on Wednesday as part of an effort to reduce environmental harms in some of New Jersey’s most underserved neighborhoods.
At the Second Baptist Church on First Street, Shawn M. LaTourette, New Jersey’s commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection; Kandyce Perry, director of the department’s Office of Environmental Justice; and Lisa Garcia, administrator for Region 2 of the US Environmental Protection Agency, which includes New Jersey, met with local residents.
The event was the third in-person stop in the department’s environmental justice listening sessions, following events in recent months in Burlington City and Elizabeth.
“We know that environmental justice issues come in many forms, and that they do not always take place in very urbanized or dense areas,” Perry said Wednesday during the meeting.
“We also know that Ocean County has been and will be on the front lines of weather-related events, like flooding and sea-level rise, as our climate gets warmer, and that the most vulnerable residents of Ocean County will be hit hard, she said.
In 2020, about half the residents of South Toms River were people of color, making it a unique municipality in Ocean County, where most residents (84%) identify as white, according to the Ocean County Planning Department.
The borough also has the second lowest per capita income in the county, according to the Planning Department. In 2018, per capita income in South Toms River was $21,463, according to the department. Only Lakewood — where nearly half of township residents are 18 or younger and are too young to work — was the per capita income lower in 2018, at $17,460, according to the department.
The state and federal officials said the purpose of Wednesday’s meeting was to hear directly from residents of South Toms River and surrounding communities about what environmental harms they faced.
More:Cleaning toxic sites, removing lead pipes part of EPA’s 2022 vision for New Jersey
Related:Murphy says NJ will speed up efforts to reduce greenhouse gas, Jersey Shore now included
“Environmental justice really speaks to the fact that there’s a history in our environmental movement that, unfortunately, low-income communities, communities of color and indigenous communities haven’t received or borne the benefit of a lot of our environmental decisions,” said Garcia , of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Too many of these communities have long faced higher levels of air pollution, old and dangerous water infrastructure, and higher levels of contamination exposure than their neighbors, she said.
The three said numerous state and federal programs aimed at eliminating some of the existing environmental hazards — such as replacing old lead water pipe infrastructure or remediating toxic, polluted sites — exist to help.
New Jersey’s Environmental Justice Law, signed in 2020 by Gov. Phil Murphy also aims to prevent these communities from being unfairly burdened by pollution in the future. The law requires the Department of Environmental Protection to take particular care in granting certain types of industrial development permits within “overburdened” communities.
To be considered “overburdened,” about 35% of a community’s population must qualify as low-income, at least 40% of the community does not identify as white, or at least 40% of households have limited English proficiency.
The Environmental Justice Law that about 310 New Jersey municipalities that meet that definition requires — the neighborhoods of nearly 4.5 million New Jersey residents — get particular consideration from the state department for certain types of new projects. Those projects include major sources of air pollution such as gas-fired power plants, trash transfer stations, landfills, large recycling centers and sewage treatment facilities.
“You might think that the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) protects the trees,” said LaTourette, the commissioner. “But actually, our job is to protect people from harms that are environmentally related.”
LaTourette said part of the department’s mission is to make sure South Toms River and communities like it get help to prepare for climate change and the problems that will come with it, such as increases flood risk and higher summer temperatures.
“Climate change is already affecting New Jersey,” he said. “It’s been here, with superstorm Sandy and with the remnants of tropical storm Ida and iterative hot and heavy rainfall and flooding events between that. And we’re not as ready as we could and should be.”
But the state department is working with local communities to change that, through changes to local planning and building codes, he said.
“We are pursuing development that is going to stand the test of time, that in the quest to solve one problem, we are not creating another,” LaTourette said. “What is important for folks to understand is that there’s not one single silver bullet that’s going to stop flooding, that’s going to help us confront rising seas, and extreme rainfall. It’s an assortment of things.”
Amanda Oglesby is an Ocean County native who covers Brick, Barnegat and Lacey townships as well as the environment. She has worked for the Press for more than a decade. Reach her from her at @OglesbyAPP, [email protected] or 732-557-5701.