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This is What an Environmental Injustice Looks Like

Trash builds up in front of businesses in Paterson a month after Hurricane Ida. Photo Credit: Martha Arencibia (Paterson, NJ)

Our worst fears about the impacts of flooding on our outdated wastewater infrastructure were realized in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. Paterson residents have been under a boil water advisory for six weeks, 25 people were killed in New Jersey, and hundreds of residents from Elizabeth have been left for weeks without permanent housing. 

Six weeks after the storm, residents are losing patience. “Enough is enough” is the rallying cry of Paterson, NJ resident Martha Arencibia. Ida was not the first storm to cause contaminated sewage water to flood Martha’s home, and it certainly will not be the last. She’s done everything she can to protect her home from flooding, but the water still finds a way. Martha spent her own money to install a sewer trap in her basement, became a local advocate for solutions to combined sewer overflows (CSOs), initiated an adopt-a-catch basin program, organized public outreach meetings, and informed the State about CSO issues in Paterson. She even started a petition to urge officials at all levels of government to take immediate action to stop sewage flooding in Paterson, NJ.

Plans to upgrade New Jersey’s combined sewer systems were submitted on Oct. 30, 2020. Nearly a year—and many storms—later, communities are still waiting in unimaginable circumstances for answers, solutions, and action. In response to the lack of communication with the public, the Sewage-Free Streets and Rivers campaign requested that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) hold a series of public meetings with the municipal and utility permit holders to respond to community comments on the CSO Long Term Control Plans and to gather feedback on how to engage residents in the implementation of these plans. NJDEP Assistant Commissioner Patricia Gardner responded to our requests in a letter informing us that the Division of Water Quality will be reaching out to stakeholders in the near future to conduct stakeholder sessions regarding the CSO permit requirements and their relationship to the important issues mentioned in our letter. Gardner stated that “the intent of these sessions will be to gather feedback, which can be used to generate permit provisions.”

 

 

CSO Permit Update

Projects that will reduce flooding and sewage overflows are coming. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) will start the process of releasing the next round of five-year Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) permits within the next three months. These permits will include the green and gray infrastructure projects approved by the NJDEP to reduce CSOs. The cost, timeline, and projects will be included in the permits, which are based on the approved 20-30 year CSO Long Term Control Plans (LTCPs). The Sewage-Free Streets and Rivers campaign is advocating for overarching requirements for public participation, green infrastructure, climate change, and environmental justice to be included in all of the forthcoming permits.

 

In 2015, the NJDEP issued five-year CSO permits, which “permitted” 25 municipalities and utilities that own and operate combined sewer outfalls to continue to overflow while they met the nine minimum controls and developed Long Term Control Plans. In 2020, all of the permit holders submitted their plans to the NJDEP. Community stakeholders had three months to review the plans and submit comments, while the NJDEP conducted its own review of the plans and drafted its response letters.

 

The first round of comment letters from the NJDEP on the LTCPs asked municipal and utility permit holders to revise their plans by addressing flooding, prioritizing projects with the most impact, and taking climate change into account. At this point, the NJDEP has received revisions from most of the permit holders. There is no set timeline for moving forward, but representatives of the NJDEP informed us that the first CSO permit will go out in the next three months and that there will be a public hearing. The remaining CSO permits are being worked on simultaneously. 

Hurricane Ida Demonstrated the Urgent Need for Sewer Upgrades

Photo Credit: Hannah Binder (Hoboken, NJ)

The flooding from Hurricane Ida emphasized the urgent need for major investments in New Jersey’s wastewater infrastructure. Streets were flooded, and sewer backups were pervasive in communities with combined sewer systems. Indeed, the 100-year storm has proven to be a once-in-a-decade affair. The impacts from the storm raise two important questions:

  1. How do we capitalize on the increasing attention devoted to the infrastructure funding and repairs we need to make our communities climate-resilient?
  2. How do we provide immediate assistance to residents and businesses suffering from property damage?

Federal assistance is needed to not only address the immediate damage caused by the storm, but to support larger infrastructure projects that will prevent future calamities as well. Hudson, Essex, Mercer, and Union counties are now eligible to apply for disaster relief assistance along with Bergen, Gloucester, Hunterdon, Middlesex, Passaic, and Somerset counties. Governor Murphy is urging everyone who experienced damage from Hurricane Ida to log their damages in order to receive assistance “as quickly as possible.”

Funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) has already reached New Jersey. These funds are intended to provide relief to individuals and businesses affected by COVID-19 and can also be used for “necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.” Additional substantial federal funding for wastewater upgrades could be coming to New Jersey from the pending federal infrastructure bill. In an interview with National Public Radio, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop committed the majority of the prospective dollars from the federal infrastructure bill to “flood mitigation because you can’t be dealing with flooding issues every single year.” According to the White House, the pending federal infrastructure bill is the “largest investment in clean drinking water and wastewater infrastructure in American history, delivering clean water to millions of families. The bill would provide $55 billion to upgrade water infrastructure to replace lead service lines and pipes, and another $50 billion would go toward making our water systems more resilient. 

Federal funding for infrastructure seems to be lining up with the finalization of combined sewer overflow Long Term Control Plans, so the next few months will be crucial for determining how these funds are used. Hurricane Ida definitely showed that upgrading our combined sewer systems should be at the top of our lists. 

Capacity Building Grants Support Community Outreach On Combined Sewer Overflows

The Sewage-Free Streets and Rivers (SFSR) campaign awarded six organizations a total of  $7,750 in capacity building grants in the spring of 2021. The purpose of these grants is to support efforts by partner organizations to conduct public outreach on combined sewer overflow (CSO) impacts, solutions, challenges, and financing. The latest round of grants focused on small business outreach and the expansion of initiatives’ reach among residents. Here is a summary of some of the activities that were organized by our partners with the support of the capacity building grants: 

 

Paterson outreach efforts got a boost. The Passaic River Coalition (PRC) worked with Paterson Green Team member Martha Arencibia to reach small businesses in Paterson through mailers and in-person outreach. PRC Executive Director Laurie Howard reported receiving the most interest from automotive repair and junk yards.  According to Howard, “no one was aware of the CSO plans, but they did express interest in any improvements.” The Great Swamp Watershed Association (GSWA) partnered with the Paterson Green Team to organize a virtual public outreach meeting and presentation on the benefits of green infrastructure to the reduction of CSOs. The GSWA and Paterson Green Team recruited 40 more residents to adopt catch basins and distributed kits that included grabbers, gloves, vests, masks, flyers on CSOs, and tools for documenting the trash collected from catch basins. These kits were distributed at an adopt-a-catch basin give-away meetup, as well as at other events. 

 

Newark small businesses, elected officials, and community members learned about CSOs. La Casa De Don Pedro distributed materials developed by the SFSR campaign to 88 small businesses located along the Lower Broadway commercial corridor, and community outreach staff presented on CSOs at several Lower Broadway Neighborhood Association meetings. In addition, La Casa De Don Pedro translated outreach materials into Spanish. COVID restrictions made in-person outreach difficult, so staff members used their email and social media networks to reach over 600 Lower Broadway residents and local elected officials with information on CSOs. Newark DIG is developing a Newark-focused outreach brochure that will inform small- and medium-sized businesses about the CSO issue, what steps the city is taking to correct the problem, the possible financing solutions the city is considering, and how business owners will be affected (as well as how they can get involved and informed). These brochures will be printed and distributed to small businesses in Newark.

 

The Greenville Neighborhood Alliance (GNA) spread the word about CSOs among residents of the Greenville neighborhood and beyond. GNA distributed information on CSOs at local events, including the Black Business Matters Juneteenth Festival and Ward F Block Party, and organized a networking barbeque for small businesses. SFSR coordinator Mo Kinberg, as well as Sustainable Jersey City, presented at the barbeque. GNA also placed an ad on CSO challenges and solutions in “The Frederick Douglass Juneteenth Celebration Memorable Journal.”  The ad ran all day on June 19, 2021  and was shared via social media (across 5 pages and over 20 groups) and emails to all networks.

 

Future City Inc. expanded its outreach efforts on CSOs to regional residents. The organization utilized informational materials and presentations to improve awareness regarding CSOs not only in Elizabeth, but in other blueway municipalities as well. Future City Inc. wanted to target non-CSO residents  so that all could understand the impacts of combined sewer systems on the region. Educational materials developed and shared included a crossword puzzle, a bilingual flyer, pictures of local sewers and CSOs, and a  map portraying all the official locations of CSOs within the municipalities along the blueway. Future City Inc. presented information about CSOs, storm drains, and gray infrastructure, as well as their impact on communities along the Arthur Kill Blueway, as part of the Waterfront Alliance and NY/NJ Harbor Estuary Program’s 14th Annual City of Water Day event. It will present the same information at the City of Elizabeth’s 2021 Estuary Day in October 2021.

 

Many of these efforts are ongoing. Sewage-Free Streets and Rivers will continue to partner with these organizations, as well as campaign partners and any groups interested in conducting outreach on CSO solutions, challenges, and financing. 

Photo credit: Greenville Neighborhood Alliance.
Photo credit: Martha Arencibia, Paterson Green Team

New Outreach Material To Engage Small Businesses on Sewer Solutions

Flooding is bad for business. Luckily, solutions are coming to communities with combined sewer systems that would boost the health of residents and businesses by upgrading stormwater and wastewater infrastructure. Use this new outreach brochure to inform small businesses about the combined sewer overflow (CSO) issue, how it impacts their business, what’s being done, and how much it will cost.  

The brochure designed by MnM Consulting and MOKOJUMBIE implements graphics and text to describe the problem, solutions, and funding options that municipalities are considering to pay for sewer upgrades. The estimated costs to upgrade New Jersey’s combined sewer systems range from $2.4 to $3.4 billion.  

Image courtesy of MnM Consulting

The brochure demonstrates how each option will impact residential and business rate-payers. For example, it explains that “some towns will raise sewer rates for existing customers for the next 20-40 years. This means residents and small business owners will pay more every year for stormwater improvements and maintenance.”

Image courtesy of MnM Consulting

Option 2 illustrates how a stormwater fee is a more equitable way to charge property owners for hard surfaces that burden our sewer systems with stormwater runoff. A fee based on paved surfaces would ensure that all property owners who are contributing stormwater to our overburdened sewer systems pay a fee based on the amount of stormwater runoff they contribute to a system. Currently, large party owners are not paying their fair share. If we do not correct this, residential rate-payers will disproportionately pay for the sewer upgrades.

Image courtesy of MnM Consulting

Option 3 shows how a blanket increase through property taxes would result in residents, small businesses, and warehouses paying the same increase despite differences in how much they contribute to the problem.

Small business owners are urged to take action by visiting SewageFreeNJ.org/ NoStatusQuo and taking a short survey so we can connect them with local decision-makers, the New Jersey Stormwater Utility Resource Center, and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Stormwater Utility Guidance website. Check out all the resources that the Sewage-Free Streets and Rivers campaign has developed to assist you with engaging residents and small business owners in shaping their communities’ solutions to reduce localized flooding and the raw sewage dumped into rivers and streams due to CSOs.

What Should Be Required in the Next CSO Permit?

Specific requirements for public participation, green infrastructure, environmental justice, and climate change were recommended in a letter that Sewage-Free Streets and Rivers (SFSR) partners sent to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) on August 4, 2021. SFSR partners and members of the Jersey Water Works (JWW) Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Committee collaborated to review the technical comments that the NJDEP sent to the CSO permit holders on their Long Term Control Plans (LTCPs). Both groups submitted letters with recommendations to the NJDEP that were based on their technical response letters and focused on requirements for the next CSO permit. 

SFSR’s letter built off the NJDEP’s comments and included specific recommendations to ensure that:

  • Future public participation is inclusive, accountable, and transparent. 
  • Plans are implemented within 20 years and address flooding and the impacts of climate change.
  • Green infrastructure is implemented within the first five years of the plans, and gray infrastructure projects with the greatest impact are prioritized.
  • Environmental justice is part of the implementation and decision-making processes. 
  • Costs for rate-payers are reduced through cost sharing between regional utilities and municipal permit holders, utilizing the I-Bank, and evaluating stormwater utilities.

Read the SFSR letter and detailed recommendations here

Additionally, the groups asked the NJDEP to jointly host a series of public meetings—within the next six months—with the regional, utility, and municipal permit holders for each of the regional LTCPs. The purpose of the public meetings is for the permit holders and the NJDEP to respond to comments and questions from the public on the CSO LTCPs and to enable the public to provide input on public participation in the next CSO permit. The groups also asked the NJDEP Office of Environmental Justice and the Division of Water Quality to coordinate efforts related to the CSO permit and rulemaking for the New Jersey Environmental Justice Law

All of the NJDEP’s technical comments on the CSO LTCPs have been sent to the CSO permit holders and posted on the NJDEP website. The CSO permit holders have 60 days from the date that the letters were sent to respond to the NJDEP’s comment letters. 

After both technical issues and implementation schedules are adequately addressed, the NJDEP Division of Water Quality will make a decision on the LTCPs. SFSR partners are advocating for changes to the proposed LTCPs and requirements for the next CSO permit that are needed to ensure equitable wastewater infrastructure investments. 

What the NJDEP is Saying About the Plans to Stop Sewage Overflows

 

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) has been working around the clock to review the combined sewer overflow (CSO) Long Term Control Plans (LTCPs) and issue response letters to the permit holders with comments, questions, and requests for clarification. On May 7, 2021 the first response letters were sent to a few of the permit holders and were posted on the NJDEP Division of Water Quality CSO website.  A few more were posted in mid-May, and we expect the remaining letters to be posted by the end of June. These letters are technical response letters that are specific to each plan, but there are some responses that apply to multiple (and possibly all) permit holders.

Here are some of the overarching themes that appear in multiple letters and relate to the issues that the Sewage-Free Streets and Rivers campaign raised in its comments on the CSO LTCPs.

The NJDEP states in all the letters we’ve reviewed that, “Public participation will continue in the next NJPDES [New Jersey Pollutant Discharge Elimination System] permit and could include three primary goals: inform, educate and engage.” Sewage-Free Streets and Rivers has been advocating for continued public participation throughout the implementation of the plans, as well as stronger requirements in the next CSO permit.

In multiple letters, the NJDEP asks the permit holders to “address how the selected CSO control alternatives address climate change and sea level rise.” This is an important question from the NJDEP, and we look forward to the forthcoming answers. In our comments, we recommend that permit holders update their rainfall model with the latest data every five years. This will ensure that permit holders are using the most recent data in their models and designs.

And in a few of the letters the Department noted that “the financial capability and economic conditions are critical components of the LTCP review.” In the same paragraph, the NJDEP explains that it is simultaneously working on the rulemaking for the Environmental Justice Law, and it acknowledges that there is a relationship between the environmental justice rulemaking,combined sewer overflow LTCPs and permits, and the financial capabilities assessment. Sewage-Free Streets and Rivers strongly advocates for equitable financing of the plans so that the costs do not fall primarily on residents of environmental justice communities who have endured decades of sewage overflows and exposure to other industrial pollutants.

The Sewage-Free Streets and Rivers campaign is working with the Jersey Water Works combined sewer overflow committee to review all the response letters. We will release further analysis of the letters in the coming months. Once the municipal and utility permit holder has received the letter, they have 60 days to respond. This begins a negotiation process, which will result in the NJDEP making a final determination to approve or reject the plan. If approved, a new five-year CSO permit will be issued.

 

Save the Date for the 2021 Jersey Water Works Annual Membership Meeting

This year’s Jersey Water Works membership meeting will be held virtually on July 28, 2021. Jersey Water Works (JWW) is a collaborative effort by a diversity of organizations and individuals, who embrace the common purpose of transforming New Jersey’s inadequate water infrastructure. Through their annual work plans, JWW committees plan and implement projects to advance the goals of the collaborative. Learn more about the activities of the JWW Combined Sewer Overflow and other committees here. JWW recently launched a Stormwater Utilities Ad Hoc Subcommittee that will be composed of members from all committees. Contact Kim Irby at kirby@njfuture.org to join a committee or for more information. JWW wants to know what’s important to you as it prepares the agenda for its membership meeting. What topics are you most interested in discussing or learning about at the membership meeting? Let the team know.

Fair Funding Sign-on Letter to the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission Board of Commissioners

The Sewage-Free Streets and Rivers campaign submitted a letter to the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission (PVSC) Board of Commissioners on Monday, May 10, 2021. The 37 signatories asked that the costs of the regional upgrades be distributed among 48 municipalities in the PVSC region.

The PVSC is one of the largest sewer treatment plants in the country and serves 48 municipalities, eight of which have combined sewer systems. To meet requirements to reduce sewage overflows, PVSC and the eight communities with combined sewer systems submitted a regional combined sewer overflow (CSO) Long Term Control Plan (LTCP) to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP). The plan, which is currently under review by the NJDEP, proposes upgrades to the municipal sewer systems, as well as regional upgrades that will increase the capacity of the treatment plant. PVSC and the eight CSO municipal permit holders are engaged in ongoing negotiations regarding how the costs of a regional plan will be shared.

We are asking the board to:

  • Ensure that the cost for these upgrades is shared equitably between the PVSC and all 48 towns in the service area, including the eight CSO municipal permit holders (Newark, Jersey City, Bayonne, Harrison, East Newark, Kearny, Gutenberg, and Paterson).
  • Recognize the full hydrological benefit that the regional CSOLong Term Control Plan will create.
  • Consider the environmental justice impacts of these plans in light of the benefits of reducing combined sewer overflows for the region, the necessary associated construction harms that the plans will require, and whom will ultimately be impacted by the cost.
  • Reduce the cost to the City of Newark based on the burden from pollutants, odors, and traffic associated with the sewer treatment plant located within the city limits. The cumulative impacts of other industries located within the city’s limits, in addition to the construction of the interceptor, will contribute additional pollution and result in years of disruption in the daily lives of Newark community members.

Read the full letter here.

Use This Tool to Pay for Sewer Upgrades

Photo by: Monkey Business Images

Stormwater fees have been implemented across the country to fund upgrades to combined sewer systems. A stormwater fee is a tool recently made available to all New Jersey communities to help mitigate flooding and pollution. Communities with combined sewer systems may utilize this tool to ensure that every property contributing to sewage overflows pays for wastewater infrastructure upgrades. Now that the state has authorized New Jersey communities to implement stormwater utilities,  a multitude of resources are available to assist municipalities with implementation.

Two resources to take a look at:

  1. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) Stormwater Utility Guidance website provides an overview of the process of establishing a stormwater utility. The site goes through the steps for establishing a stormwater utility fee, requirements for fees, credits and exemptions, how to use the fees, and developing an asset management program. The resource page includes a glossary of terms,  frequently asked questions, and links to stormwater utilities established outside of New Jersey.
  2. New Jersey Future’s New Jersey Stormwater Utility Resource Center explains the importance of stormwater management. The site dispels common myths and includes resources such as mapping tools and best practices for establishing a stormwater utility. The resource page links to many resources from inside and outside of New Jersey, including case studies and consulting assistance.

Now that we have the resources needed to establish stormwater utilities, New Jersey municipalities with flooding and pollution issues should take advantage of this tool to ensure that wastewater infrastructure is financed equitably.