2019’s Environmental ‘Highlights’: Climate Change, Algal Blooms, Lead Service Lines and More

And a look ahead to environment stories we might see in 2020
Alge bloom on lakeCredit: Creative Commons
Algae blooms like this one kept New Jersey residents from swimming or fishing in some lakes this summer.

In 2019, New Jersey published plans to eradicate lead service lines that supply drinking water to homes, struggled to rid the state’s lakes of algal blooms, denied permits for a planned natural-gas pipeline and ramped up its already alarming forecasts for sea-level rise.

It was a year when the Murphy administration showed its growing concern with climate change by marking the 700th purchase of flood-prone coastal properties under its Blue Acres program. It also found the money to defend a historic Delaware Bay lighthouse from the rising waters that have been threatening it for years.

Policymakers filed more natural resource damages suits against corporate polluters, but lawmakers put off a move to ban plastic shopping bags, and environmental officials continued to delay adopting regulations that would set strict new limits on two toxic PFAS chemicals.

In 2020, voters will be asked to approve a $500 million bond to pay for part of an ambitious statewide program to replace lead service lines for drinking water over the next 10 years; environmental officials will pursue a directive to five companies that are accused of polluting the environment with PFAS chemicals;  and the Delaware River Basin Commission — an interstate water regulator that includes New Jersey — will face continued pressure to permanently ban the import of fracking waste into the basin and the potential export of basin water for fracking elsewhere.

Getting the lead out

The state will continue to look for ways to eradicate lead in drinking water, headed up by the City of Newark, which is already replacing its lead service lines. Amid worsening forecasts for global sea-level rise, state and federal officials will explore the defense of New Jersey’s highly exposed and densely populated shorelines. And they will weigh whether to issue permits for a liquefied natural-gas export terminal — the state’s first — at Gibbstown on the Delaware River in South Jersey, in the face of strong opposition from environmental groups.

At the local level, officials will respond to the threat of increased flooding from climate change by building green infrastructure and reducing pavement so that heavy rains can soak into the ground rather than becoming pollutant-laden runoff. And the hundreds of public and private entities brought together by the Jersey Water Works collaborative will continue their multi-billion-dollar modernization of the state’s antiquated water infrastructure.

Here’s a selection of the top environmental stories of 2019:

  • Sea levels at the shore will rise as much as 6.3 feet by the end of the century, sharply higher than previously forecast, according to a Rutgers University study announced with the Department of Environmental Protection in December. Although the forecast for 2100 depends how or whether global carbon emissions are cut, sea-level rise by 2050 is pretty much baked in regardless of future emissions, DEP Secretary Catherine McCabe warned.
  • Federal regulators approved a plan to ship liquefied natural gas by rail to a planned export terminal on a former DuPont site at Gibbstown in Gloucester County from a liquefaction plant in northeastern Pennsylvania. Critics said public safety would be put at risk by trains carrying the highly explosive material through densely populated areas and argued that the terminal would boost greenhouse gas emissions by boosting the production of natural gas. The special permit issued by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration increases the chances that the terminal will be built.
  • Gov. Phil Murphy announced a plan to replace every lead service line connecting water mains to individual homes — estimated to number 350,000 — over 10 years at a cost of $2 billion. Low-income customers would get help from $500 million in a new state bond — if it’s approved by voters in the November 2020 election.
  • The Murphy administration filed more natural-resource damage suits against industrial polluters, seeking compensation for environmental harm, and bringing the total to 12 since Murphy took office, compared with none under the administration of former Gov. Chris Christie.
  • The DEP ordered five industrial companies to pay for the testing and cleanup of toxic PFAS chemicals, which the state said had significantly contaminated New Jersey’s air and water. Meanwhile, environmentalists urged the DEP to end a long delay in adopting strict new health standards for two of the chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, as recommended by the state’s Drinking Water Quality Institute.
  • In the latest blow to a long-delayed project, an appeals court ruled that the PennEast Pipeline Co. did not have the right to take New Jersey state lands to build a $1 billion natural-gas pipeline from Pennsylvania to Mercer County. Although the company said it will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the ruling may spell the end for the controversial project, which has sparked fierce opposition from communities along the New Jersey section of the route. In October, the DEP denied permits for the project, saying its application was deficient.
  • Murphy said the state will spend $13.5 million and deploy cutting-edge science in an effort to prevent a repeat of the harmful algal blooms that choked many New Jersey lakes last summer, closing them to swimmers and boaters. Critics said the measures won’t stop the runoff that contributes to the blooms and won’t reverse climate change that creates algae-friendly temperatures.
  • The DEP’s Blue Acres program to buy and demolish homes in flood-prone coastal areas marked its 700th purchase since starting in 1995. Environmentalists said the program is a start to the process of removing buildings from places that are threatened by sea-level rise, but that the number of purchases so far is probably dwarfed by the total that will be in harm’s way over the next 30 years.
  • A contractor began building up a sandy shoreline in Cumberland County to defend the historic East Point Lighthouse from encroaching seas. The project, funded by the National Park Service, is only a temporary measure while the DEP thinks about longer-term responses to sea-level rise at the isolated site.
  • Legislation that would enact the nation’s most comprehensive effort to ban single-use plastic and paper shopping bags was unexpectedly pulled from a Senate committee vote in December because of amendments that would implement a ban quicker than previously proposed. Even if the bill expires before the next legislative session starting in January, observers expect lawmakers will eventually approve the measures.
  • The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said low-lying coastline along New Jersey’s back bays could be protected from rising seas by storm-surge barriers, flood walls and levees but that any construction by the agency isn’t likely for about another decade, after completion of a massive, multiyear study.