New Jersey Department of Environmental Commissioner Shawn LaTourette
Monday, July 25, 2022 10:23 AM

NJDEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette, the featured speaker for the second day of the LSRPA’s New Jersey Site Remediation Conference, raised important issues about the NJDEP and the focus of its ongoing work.

As he has discussed before, LaTourette said his major issues are changing how the NJDEP thinks about the future, it’s true role with the environment, climate change, and environmental justice – a major initiative of the Murphy administration.

Notably, the commissioner said he spends the least amount of time addressing site remediation. NJDEP officials continually praise the success of the Site Remediation Program and LSRPs. LaTourette advised LSRPs to consider the resilience of their remediation solutions against a hotter, wetter future that is more prone to flooding.

The commissioner also said site remediation “for the most part” would not be impacted by environmental justice concerns. An existing remediation site could be a factor against siting a future facility covered by the proposed new environmental justice rules, he said. The rules, N.J.A.C. 7:1C, are open for public comment until September 2022, he said. But whether or how to clean a contaminated site would not be impacted by the law, he said.

Below are excerpts from his June 15, 2022 speech to the LSRPA.

The Role of the NJDEP

“I thought I really knew the DEP, like really well, and turns out that I really knew a lot about some pieces of it, but I didn't really know it. In fact, I think the name - Department of Environmental Protection - is probably the wrong one. Because it's not really what we do. We don't protect the environment, for the environment’s sake, we protect the environment for the sake of people.”

“The reason that we protect our environment is because every single natural resource is doing something for us. Doing something for the public that in most instances the public would otherwise have to pay for.”

“We can build water treatment plants at exorbitant costs to replace the degraded wetlands that would have cleaned that water for free. … Or maybe we have to build the flood wall where that forest was that once protected that community you live in from flooding that's getting worse.”

“One of my biggest jobs every year is stewarding a billion dollars worth of infrastructure development, one of the biggest parts of my job, and I spend way more time with that than I ever do in the site remediation realm. I probably spend, in my role, the least amount of time in the site remediation realm.”

“One of the things that is always striking to me is that we are seeking consistently to manage that legacy thing. Whether it is the contaminated site, or the old infrastructure that delivers our drinking water, whether it is that endangered species that we hope to recover or the lost habitat that we want to restore. We're always seeking to manage to the past. And to my mind, that is a deeply problematic way to govern. And one of my biggest priorities is making the DEP more future forward focused.”

Climate Change

“The science is in. No reasonable scientists question it; there's plenty of unreasonable ones that do. And it's shocking that we still must manage for that misinformation, or disinformation. But we need to begin looking at ourselves internally at the department and ask the difficult question of how do we take a regulatory environment that grew up in the 1970s and make it focus more on the future?

“To some extent, we've done the job of the 1970s environmental movement: the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, CERCLA. …But it doesn't mean we're done.”

“Everything that that we build - the remedies we design, the infrastructure we plan, the investments we make - in some way is relying upon precipitation data in some way, shape or form. And we know that that precipitation data is wrong. The last data point we use in designing, building, constructing, remedying, anything is from 1999. I could not sit at a bar and order a drink at that time. And in the last 22 years, intense precipitation in New Jersey has increased between 2.5% to 10%, depending on where you are in the state.”

“[I] ask all of you to not be afraid of the future, but to plan for it. Plan for those contingencies that are necessary as you develop your site models and your remedial actions. Let it be something that you can stand behind long into the future as things change.”

Environmental Justice (EJ) and Site Remediation

“Our EJ law, and regulations were just proposed [June 8, 2022], so I can't say too much about them or the lawyers will yell at me. So I'll be careful. For the most part, the EJ law doesn't reach the site remediation world. For the most part.”

“The EJ law for those who don't know, recognizes the fact that as a function of the pollution that we all together create, over the last 50 years of modern environmental law, that pollution has been disproportionately experienced by low income minority and indigenous communities…. This piece of legislation seeks to right the ship over time, and asks the DEP to look harder at the siting of certain facilities. It's very narrow, actually, with respect to its application - eight types of facilities that it applies to.”

“The existence of contaminated sites in a proposed community would be a factor [in siting]. And so that's where this law and the regulations touch upon the site remediation world. They don't apply to site remediation permits, they only apply to those eight different types of facilities….  Not to any site remediation permit. That was incredibly important to us. … Our concern was that including that could undermine the … cleanup and redevelopment of contaminated properties, recognizing the great work that the members of this organization have done.”

“Well before you were LSRPs, your entire careers have been focused on improving the environment. We recognize that. And so we did not want to see that work fall within additional permitting processes. Your work already does what we want the EJ law to do. It does the one thing that we should always do: leave this place better than we found it.”