On April 20, 2018, Governor Murphy signed Executive Order 23. In the order, Governor Murphy concluded that New Jersey’s low-income communities and communities of color have been exposed to disproportionately high and unacceptably dangerous levels of air, water, and soil pollution, and that the State should focus its efforts on promoting environmental justice. Accordingly, the order, among other things, directed the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Law and Public Safety to develop “guidance for all Executive branch departments and agencies for the consideration of [e]nvironmental [j]ustice in implementing their statutory and regulatory responsibilities.” On December 17, 2018, the NJDEP’s Office of Environmental Justice released a draft of its “Environmental Justice Executive Order No. 23 Guidance” for public comment. To accomplish the goals set forth in the Executive Order, the guidance establishes its definition of environmental justice, identifies environmental justice issues, describes environmental justice action plans, and provides for an environmental justice interagency counsel.

As currently written, the guidance employs the definition of environmental justice developed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. According to USEPA, environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Fair treatment, in turn, means that “no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental, and commercial operations or policies.” Groups bearing such disproportionate shares are called, “environmental justice communities.” While the guidance does not define the phrase “disproportionate share,” NJDEP will use an environmental justice screening tool developed by USEPA called “EJSCREEN,” and other tools already used by other State agencies, to more precisely establish the meaning of the phrase.

The guidance identifies several issues generally faced by environmental justice communities. These issues include excessive air pollution from stationary and mobile sources, lead contamination in housing, drinking water, and soils, pesticide exposure, and high density of sites contaminated with hazardous substances. Other highlighted issues include cumulative health impacts from exposure to many sources of pollution, social conditions such as lack of access to affordable housing, healthcare, and healthy food, and vulnerability to effects of climate change.

To respond to these challenges, State agencies with programs affecting environmental justice communities will prepare State agency action plans or “EJ Action Plans.” These plans will include provisions for educating staff about environmental justice. They will also identify existing programs that have a significant impact on environmental justice communities, and help State agencies to work together to leverage program and funding opportunities to benefit environmental justice communities. The plans will also describe the current methods used to provide program information to environmental justice communities, solicit community feedback and collaboration, and identify opportunities to improve engagement with environmental justice communities. NJDEP will assist other State agencies in preparing the EJ Action Plans.

The guidance also calls for an environmental justice interagency council, or “EJ Interagency Council.” Sitting on the council would be the heads, or senior designees, of the Agencies with programs affecting environmental justice communities. The council would serve as a forum for collaboration and for identifying environmental justice concerns, developing priorities and action plans, and facilitating collaboration with environmental justice communities. The guidance also provides for the formation of workgroups within the counsel. In particular, the guidance states that the first workgroups will address the use of screening tools and methodologies to identify environmental justice communities, assess cumulative health risks in environmental justice communities, study lead exposure, and investigate the disproportionate effects of climate change. Other workgroups could be formed to address other issues as well.

NJDEP will be accepting public comments on the guidance until March 22, 2019. Comments should be submitted to eo23@dep.nj.gov. The guidance can be found here.