Members of the Ramapough Lenape tribe in Upper Ringwood were optimistic when Gov. Phil Murphy was elected two years ago, because he spoke passionately about bringing environmental justice to lower-income and minority communities, which often endure a disproportionate amount of pollution.
They believed that he would reverse former Gov. Chris Christie's support for a federal plan to keep tons of contaminated soil next to their neighborhood and instead call for having the soil hauled off to a licensed landfill.
That never happened.
Instead, the Murphy administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in May signed off on a $21 million legal settlement with the Ford Motor Co. that leaves the pollution in place. It had been dumped there from a Ford plant.
“I absolutely had hope that Gov. Murphy was going to go against it," said Vincent Mann, chief of the Ramapough's Turtle Clan, many of whom live next to the Superfund site. "It was crushing when he signed off. It was just talk, empty promises, nothing more."
Ringwood is one of several examples across New Jersey where Murphy’s rhetoric about environmental justice doesn’t always match his actions.
From the mountains of Passaic County to the marshes of the Meadowlands, residents and some local leaders have fought the Murphy administration on everything from removing toxic waste and closing a state-owned landfill to blocking plans for a state-owned power plant.
Those conflicts run counter to environmental justice policies developed in recent years by the federal government and several states — including New Jersey — to ensure that lower-income and minority communities are no longer burdened with excessive amounts of pollution.
Four months after taking office, Murphy signed a much-touted executive order requiring all state agencies to give “fair and equitable treatment” to communities like Upper Ringwood by "considering the cumulative impacts of their actions in overburdened communities on an ongoing basis.”
“All of our residents regardless of race, color, ethnicity, religion deserve to live in communities free from the effects of pollution and are entitled to participate in decision-making that affects their environment, their communities, their homes and their health,” Murphy said when he signed the order in April 2018.
And Murphy has indeed made some moves that benefit environmental justice communities:
- Opposing a gas-fired power plant proposed for North Bergen after being noncommital for 18 months
- Suing polluters in six lower-income communities to force them to clean up contamination
- Conditionally vetoing a bill that would have continued to send food waste to incinerators in environmental justice communities
- Pushing for a statewide plan to deal with lead contamination, which disproportionately affects lower-income communities
- Using a portion of settlements from the Volkswagen emissions settlement to buy electric buses, garbage trucks and port vehicles in environmental justice communities like Camden, Newark and Elizabeth, which has some of the worst air pollution in the state.
But other battles are being fought over decisions that could harm the very communities meant to benefit from Murphy's environmental justice order.
Perhaps no environmental issue has pitted one community against the Murphy administration more than the Keegan Landfill in Kearny.
Noxious fumes from the state-owned landfill have been so bad this year that coaches canceled soccer matches at an adjacent field and teachers kept windows shut at nearby Franklin Elementary School.
Already burdened with 144 contaminated sites and having a population that is 60 percent minority, Kearny’s push to close the landfill and improve air quality would appear to fall under Murphy’s push for environmental justice.
Instead, the Murphy administration has been locked in a heated battle with the town to keep the landfill open, even though dozens of residents have packed monthly meetings of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which operates the landfill, to express their outrage.
"He's failed the people here," Kearny Mayor Alberto Santos, a fellow Democrat, said of Murphy. "You would think his rhetoric would lead to positive environmental actions. Here, it's anything but."
The conflict has resulted in an ongoing legal battle that reached the state Supreme Court, which sided with Kearny.
Residents thought the battle might be over when a state judge in September ordered the landfill to stay permanently closed, calling it a "clear and immediate danger" due to high levels of hydrogen sulfide. Breathing low concentrations of the gas can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, along with difficulty breathing for some asthmatics, as well as headaches, fatigue and balance problems.
But the sports authority says it will appeal the decision. The landfill is one of the agency's biggest sources of revenue, bringing in more than $17 million in tipping fees last year.
Meanwhile, the town sued the DEP last month, alleging that the agency did not hold public hearings or require adequate funding to be set aside to close the landfill when it issues year-to-year permits that allow Keegan to operate.
Alexandra Altman, a Murphy spokeswoman, said the administration would not comment on pending litigation, but said Murphy is "is committed to working with the community and its residents to ensure the safe and orderly closing of the landfill."
So far his actions have shown anything but such a commitment, said longtime resident Cristina Montague.
"Many of my friends are sick and suffering from respiratory and other issues," she said. "It saddens me that our community has to endure this nightmare on a regular basis, that our governor has not stepped up to do the right thing. He touts his environmental record, but he ignores our pleas for help."
NJ Transit power plant
While Murphy has received praise from some environmental groups for opposing the North Bergen power plant, there is another proposed plant that he has direct control over: NJ Transit's plan to build a gas-fired power plant in the Meadowlands.
The plan, called Transitgrid, originated during Christie's administration in the wake of Superstorm Sandy to keep local and Amtrak rail lines reliably powered even during extreme weather.
The project has gained traction this year under Murphy, with the publication of an environmental review of the plan — an important step in the approval process.
Altman said the plant still needs to undergo a "thorough and rigorous review" by DEP. "There has not been a final decision on this project and therefore, no permits have been awarded," she said.
The $546 million Transitgrid project is attractive to New Jersey officials since 75 percent is funded by the federal government.
But to environmentalists and nearby residents, it would mean another polluting facility in an overburdened region.
The project calls for a gas-fired power plant to be built on the vacant,170-acre Koppers Koke property in Kearny that is already polluted from decades of industrial use. The plant would add another major source of greenhouse gas emissions to the region: 383,000 to 571,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually.
The project seems to run counter to Murphy's goals to lower New Jersey's carbon footprint. The region is already home to one of the state's largest power plants — PSEG Power's Bergen Generating Station, located seven miles north in Ridgefield.
The proposed NJ Transit plant would emit pollution that can cause smog and trigger asthma attacks — but at levels below federal air quality standards, according to an analysis by NJ Transit.
That brings little relief to David "Ace" Case, who has lived about a mile from the site for 30 years.
He said the region suffered for almost 50 years from a PSEG coal-fired power plant in Jersey City that the NAACP had ranked as the third-worst plant in the country in terms of its disproportionate impact on low-income people of color.
"So they close one plant and now we're introducing another," said Case, chairman of the Hudson County Sierra Club. "My brother lives in Ridgewood. There are no power plants in Ridgewood. If someone proposed to build one in Ridgewood, it would be shot down before there's any movement."
Roger Quesada, a Hudson County environmental advocate, said Murphy had deserved a failing grade on environmental justice matters before the governor came out against the North Bergen power plant.
“I would give him a B- or a C+ now because that was a major decision, especially for this area, where we have communities of color with high concentrations of Latino immigrants,” Quesada said. “But we need to know why he can’t make the same commitment with the NJ Transit plan.”
Environmental justice bill
A bill that has slowly made its way through Trenton is shaping up to be a battle over how stringent the Murphy administration wants to be on environmental justice.
The bill — S1700 sponsored by Senators Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, and Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck — would require the DEP to conduct an additional environmental evaluation and public hearing before deciding on a permit for a polluting facility in a “burdened community.”
But Singleton said the DEP has objected to language in the bill — specifically, how to evaluate the cumulative impact of a new facility on a community, including potential health effects like asthma, cancer, and other ailments associated with pollution.
The DEP’s stance “seems counterintuitive to what the governor is saying,” Singleton said.
The bill was approved by the Senate's environment committee in January and was sent to the appropriations committee, but has not yet had a hearing.
A DEP spokeswoman did not answer questions about the agency’s position on the bill and instead gave a broad statement in support of environmental justice.
Ringwood Superfund site
In Ringwood, theEPA had originally planned to have Ford and the borough pay $32.6 million to remove 166,000 tons of contaminated soil from the O'Connor Disposal Area — one of three sites where Ford contractors dumped trash, paint sludge and drums of waste from its Mahwah factory a half century ago.
Then Ringwood officials introduced plans to build a new recycling center — paid for by Ford — on an asphalt barrier atop O'Connor.
The move lowered that portion of the cleanup cost by $27.2 million to $5.4 million, drawing both outrage from many who want the pollution removed and support from the town council and some residents who feared a costly cleanup would significantly raise their property taxes.
Ringwood is on the hook for the cleanup because town officials allowed the dumping to take place.
In defending the Murphy administration's support for the plan to cap rather than remove the contaminated Ringwood soil, Altman said that the EPA and DEP have determined that a barrier is "protective of human health and the environment," and noted the Ringwood council's approval of the plan.
That approval has continued to anger many Ramapoughs — who had already been skeptical of environmental regulators. The Ringwood site has been mishandled by the EPA, which declared it clean only to have to relist it as a Superfund site when a 2005 investigation by The Record and NorthJersey.com showed how much waste remained.
The Ramapoughs have said Ford's pollution is responsible for a number of ailments in their community, including premature death. They had invited Murphy to tour the site, but he has not done so.
DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe and other state and EPA officials toured the site in October 2018.
Tribal members and other residents tried to persuade them to oppose the cleanup plan, to no avail. McCabe has close ties to the EPA — she worked for the agency for more than a decade before joining DEP.
“If you want to be in front of the environmental justice fight, you have to come up here to Ringwood and stand with us,” Mann said. “Gov. Murphy is good at saying things. The difference is when I say something, I’m going to go ahead and do it.”