New Jersey environmental protection officials said Thursday they hope to have a law that guards communities from overbearing pollution in full effect by the end of this year.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed the law in September 2020 in Newark, but rulemaking, public comment and other procedures have yet to be completed.
Officials with the state Department of Environmental Protection said they hope to approve rules spelling out the details of the law by Dec. 31, which would mark the point where the law was fully implemented.
In the meantime, DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette has issued an administrative order requiring current and future projects to comply with its spirit and goals.
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He said the order has the practical effect of “placing us where the rule ultimately would.”
Murphy signed the law in order to prevent communities — often low-income, minority neighborhoods — from having to bear the brunt of too many sources of pollution.
“This is a big deal,” LaTourette said during a briefing for reporters on where the law currently stands. “We have wrestled with those hard questions. We believe we have landed at the right place.”
Because it is not yet in full effect, the law does not directly affect one of the most hotly contested environmental justice cases in the state, the proposed addition of a backup gas-fired power plant at a sewage treatment facility in Newark's Ironbound section.
That neighborhood already suffers from multiple sources of pollution from nearby power plants, an international airport, numerous highways and heavy truck traffic through residential neighborhoods.
LaTourette said he would not prejudge the application, which is already being considered by his agency.
But he and other DEP officials said there are steps that the power plant and other applicants could take to lessen pollution in the area, including in places off their own property.
In January, the governor directed the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission to pause a plan to build the largest part of a $180 million backup power plant, designed to kick in when the main facility is knocked offline.
The commission has proposed measures including the adoption of “state of the art” pollution controls that go beyond the state’s own requirements.
The commission says it will only run the backup power plant during emergencies and for basic maintenance only; in a year in which no emergencies occur, the backup plant would operate for a maximum of 12 days a year.
The commission also has dropped a plan to use the backup power plant on days of high electric demand, which it says will eliminate 700 hours of operation. It also says it plans to install “all of the technically feasible solar power it can.”
It also plans to convert from natural gas to cleaner fuels as soon as that becomes feasible, including the use of battery power.
The backup power plant is designed to avoid a repeat of what happened during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, when nearly a billion gallons of raw sewage flowed into nearby waterways when the plant went offline due to a lack of electricity.
The commission says that without the backup plant, the streets of the Ironbound section could be awash in raw sewage during a serious storm that knocks out power to the sewage treatment facility.
LaTourette predicted numerous legal challenges to the law once it takes full effect.
"Lawyers will build entire careers on splitting its hairs," he said.