The Center for the Urban Environment

The primary mission of the Center for the Urban Environment (CUE) is to support the environmental justice community of New Jersey. In practical terms this often translates into working with the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance (NJEJA) and its constituent organizations. Environmental justice advocates are concerned with the disproportionate amount of pollution that is often inflicted upon communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, and NJEJA is the only statewide environmental organization in New Jersey that focuses solely on environmental justice (EJ) issues. It is also the only statewide environmental organization in which a majority of both its membership and leadership are people of color.

CUE has worked with environmental justice advocates and organizations on a number of important issues including increasing the capacity of NJEJA, reducing particulate matter (PM) air pollution, climate change, energy policy, cumulative impacts and access to the natural environment. CUE’s director, Dr. Nicky Sheats, also spends a significant amount of time talking to various groups about these specific issues and EJ in general.

In recent years CUE has also expanded its presence to a national level and has worked with EJ organizations and advocates from around the country, as well as with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA).

Policy Issues

Reducing PM Air Pollution
Fine PM air pollution has been estimated to cause tens of thousands of premature deaths each year in the United States and exacerbates or causes a variety of illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disorders and cancer. This deadly pollutant is an EJ issue because concentrations tend to be highest in urban areas and for that reason fine PM is almost certainly causing deaths and illness at disproportionately high rates among people of color and low-income residents of New Jersey. This alarming collection of facts is why CUE has made fine PM one of its priority substantive EJ issues.

CUE has undertaken a number of activities with NJEJA in an effort to affect state policy in a manner that will result in decreased fine PM concentrations in urban areas. Among them are:

  1. working with NJEJA to develop a fine and diesel PM reduction policy platform;
  2. helping to conduct a PM monitoring project that involved high school students from Camden, Trenton and Newark;
  3. submitting written comments on the state’s Fine PM Implementation Plan;
  4. working with the Clean and Healthy Ports Coalition to reduce air pollution from the ports in Northern New Jersey;
  5. helping NJEJA and other groups to develop a proposed executive order that would require privately-owned, publicly contracted, diesel-powered vehicles to be retrofitted with a pollution control device. A variation of this proposed order was eventually issued by the State; and
  6. helping NJEJA to develop a cumulative impacts state policy and model municipal ordinance that would result in PM reductions (see below). CUE also played a significant role in developing EJ climate change and EJ energy production polices that would reduce fine PM emissions and concentrations. (See below)

In addition to its state work CUE also engaged in several national activities that could affect PM concentrations across the country (see below)

Climate Change
CUE and NJEJA have developed an EJ climate change policy that features using global warming policy to reduce emissions of fine PM and its precursors, along with emissions of greenhouse gases, as one of its most important policy recommendations. The complete policy contains six policy recommendations and also advocates utilizing energy efficiency and renewable energy extensively in urban areas in order to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, reduce emissions of fine PM and its precursors, and provide employment and other economic opportunities to local residents. CUE prepared and submitted comments on behalf of NJEJA on rules governing the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a northeast area carbon-trading program, that were essentially based on their (CUE and NJEJA’s) EJ climate change policy. On a national level CUE and NJEJA are working with a group of EJ organizations from across the country that is addressing national EJ climate change policies from an EJ perspective. (see below)

Energy Policy
CUE and NJEJA submitted written comments on New Jersey’s draft Energy Master Plans in both 2008 and 2011 that essentially delineate an EJ energy policy. Major themes include utilizing energy policy to reduce emissions of fine PM and its precursors, and developing siting and extraction policies that do not perpetuate or create excessive pollution in local communities.

Cumulative Impacts
Constructing a policy that addresses cumulative health impacts, i.e., multiple sources of pollution in a neighborhood that can have detrimental health impacts on local residents has been a persistent concern of the EJ community for years. CUE and NJEJA have developed municipal and state level policies to address cumulative impacts. On the municipal level, we have developed a model ordinance that the City of Newark is considering enacting in some form. To educate community residents and city officials about cumulative impacts and the model ordinance, NJEJA and CUE conduct free EJ and cumulative impacts workshops. On the state level CUE and NJEJA have created a policy that integrates consideration of cumulative impacts into the issuance of pollution discharge permits by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) and have presented the policy to high ranking NJDEP staff.

CUE’s director also chaired a hearing on cumulative impacts held by the New Jersey Clean Air Council that featured testimony from national experts on the issue. The Council issued recommendations on cumulative impacts to NJDEP’s commissioner subsequent to the hearing, and CUE’s director played a key role in writing the report that contains the recommendations.

Access to the Natural Environment
CUE prepared and submitted comments on behalf of NJEJA to NJDEP on proposed rules that the EJ community believed would reduce the access of urban residents to New Jersey’s urban waterways. The CUE’s director also testified at a public hearing regarding the proposed rules.

Increasing the Capacity of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance
CUE played a leading role in writing a grant proposal and organizing an EJ tour of New Jersey for foundation officers that successfully obtained funds in 2007 to hire a statewide coordinator for NJEJA. The coordinator, Mr. Henry Rose, is also a fellow at CUE and CUE is leading the effort to raise additional funds to maintain the position.

National and Regional Work In recent years CUE has expanded its activities to a national level by working with several partners. In the area of climate change, CUE’s director represents NJEJA in the EJ Leadership Forum on Climate Change, a group of EJ advocates and organizations from across the nation that work on climate change policy from an EJ perspective. In May 2009, CUE’s director participated in presentations made by the Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C. to representatives from the Council on Environmental Quality, the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), and the Department of Labor. In February 2011, he was part of a delegation from the Leadership Forum that testified in Atlanta at a USEPA listening session on new source performance standards and the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

CUE organizes the EJ and Science Initiative, which is part of the Leadership Forum. The Initiative brings together members of the Leadership Forum and a small group of scientists from across the nation that attempt to find common ground on important public policy issues connected to climate change. The group has issued two letters on such issues thus far. One is on USEPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases and on greenhouse gas co-pollutants. The other is on carbon capture and sequestration, also known as CCS or “clean coal”.

CUE has also worked with the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University as part of its EJ policy task force and its program to work with gulf communities that were affected by the gulf oil spill.

CUE’s director served on the School Air Toxics Monitoring Work Group of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which issued a report that advised USEPA on exactly how to maximize community involvement in air monitoring at over five dozen schools around the nation. He is currently a member of the USEPA’s Clean Air Act Advisory Committee and made a significant contribution to its recent report on using a multi-pollutant approach to the regulation of air pollution. CUE also prepared and submitted comments on behalf of NJEJA to USEPA on proposed rules that would reduce toxic air emissions from power plants.

On a regional level, CUE is the primary organizer of an EJ attorneys group that includes attorneys from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. The group meets on a regular basis and discusses legal theories that may help the EJ community and legal issues that are of concern to the EJ community. The group may also link EJ groups and attorneys.