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$5 Million Wash?

New Jersey Chapter of Sierra Club takes a stance on sewer plant proposed for Fortescue.

by Jeff Tittel, Director, New Jersey Sierra Club

The New Jersey Department of Enivornmental Protection (DEP) has proposed to build a $15 million sewer plant in Fortescue, Downe Township, which is one of the most vulnerable areas on the east coast due to sea level rise and storm surges. This is the absolute worst time and place to be spending millions on a new sewer plant, and yet they just received a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The plant is a disaster waiting to happen. It is putting more people at risk in an area where climate impacts are increasing at an alarming rate.

This $5 million grant is going to wash away in the next storm. What’s even worse is that this plant is just a cover for justifying more development in a seriously flood-prone area. The proposal will also impact environmentally sensitive areas like coastal wetlands and critical habitats. The future service areas such as Fortescue, Fortescue Park, Gandy’s Beach Villages, and the Raybins Beach are some of the most vulnerable areas on the east coast for climate impact and are going under water. We need to update new FEMA flood maps for sea level rise. Conditions will get worse, and this grant will go toward putting more people in harm’s way. These are flood-prone places that the DEP Blue Acres program should be buying out to create natural flood and storm barriers, not a place for new development.

The sewer plant does not meet the current state Coastal Area Facility Review Act (CAFRA) standards, which is why the DEP should be strengthening the current ones. Downe Township is designated as an environmentally sensitive area under CAFRA in the State Redevelopment Plan and therefore it is not justifiable because the only place to put the sewer plant is in the center of Fortescue. The area is home to habitats of endangered and threatened species and next to a significant global birding area for more than 150 different birds. Sewage treatment plants or development would seriously impact these critical wildlife species and their habitats.

The DEP has been looking to buy this area out as part of Blue Acres, and now they are looking at putting in a new sewer instead. A few bad septics in the region are being used to justify a massive development, and the septics that aren’t working will be fixed before the plant is even built. Instead of doing proper septic maintenance and meeting groundwater pollution standards, this project will bring in sewers and pipes as well as more development that will increase nitrates and discharge of phosphorous into our waterways.

The DEP has completely failed to do its job when it comes to flooding, water quality, and climate change. They failed to look at the Secondary and/or Cumulative Impact Analysis or a Groundwater Depletion Analysis of any kind. They did not look at the impacts of stormwater runoff and non-point pollution either. There has not been a proper anti-discharge analysis from the facility or secondary impacts from stormwater runoff from increased development. There has not been a proper 201 analysis for this amendment as well. This area has high water tables and facility infrastructure is very vulnerable to inland and storm surge flooding. In some cases, this permanently impacts the aquifer. The grant money will not be enough to make it cost effective and the first major storm after the plant is built could wash everything into the bay.

This plant is not needed, and now we’re putting federal money in the mix. Residents will pay thousands of dollars to subsidize new developments and end up watching their properties wash away in the next big storm. Changing sewer service will mean additional development, leading to more pavement and impervious cover, increased stormwater runoff, and pollution in our waterways. This could also lead to overpumping aquifers, lowering the water table, and drying out streams and wetlands, eventually impacting Delaware Bay.

A massive wastewater plant and sewer service area is unnecessary, and this USDA grant and the DEP will be permitting a disaster. This proposal will threaten environmentally sensitive land, critical species, and worsen climate impacts to this already flood-prone area. Governor Murphy says he wants New Jersey to be a leader in climate change and sea level rise; however, if this plan goes forward it’s all talk and no action. The Governor and the DEP will be putting people at risk. They need to stand up to climate change, our environment, and the safety of the people by rejecting this unneeded sewer plan.