Storm Warning – Where Climate Change Risks Converge

Water rising on Marin Blvd & York St during Hurricane Sandy

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, Jersey City had a mess on its hands unlike anything in recent memory. There were crippling power outages, widespread floods, and the destruction of iconic landmarks. Businesses shut down, transportation lines were severed, and bustling neighborhoods went quiet for a week, if not longer.

The late October storm of 2012 raised questions both locally and nationwide about climate change and whether coastal cities were doing enough to prepare for storms of increasing intensity. But as recent studies suggest, Jersey City has more to worry about than simply preparing for the next storm. That’s because Jersey City is in a unique position – a uniquely bad one – to suffer not only from the future effects of climate change, but from the actual causes themselves. It’s the proverbial rock and a hard place conundrum, and for Jersey City residents, it doesn’t look like either side is budging any time soon.

THE PERFECT STORM

Jersey City isn’t alone. Many large cities stand a higher risk of being affected by global climate change. Where most cities will experience more acute individual effects of this change – greater flooding, more economic loss – Jersey City is at particular risk due to its combination of several key high-risk factors.

The first is geographic. With two exposed shorelines – the Hudson River to its east and Passaic to its west – and over fifty percent of the city’s land lying in flood zones, Jersey City’s location leaves it vulnerable to the storm surges and flash flooding that are typical of violent storms.

The second factor is infrastructure. The city utilizes a combined sewer and rain drainage system, meaning floodwater can enter the drinking supply, spew from household pipes, and fill homes from the inside. This water is nearly uncontrollable, but above all, it’s dirty, with a high likelihood of containing raw sewage. This can not only spread disease, but render homes unlivable for extended periods of time.

The third factor putting Jersey City at higher risk is demographic. “It’s almost a straight line relationship for both race and income,” says Dr. Nicky Sheats of the Center for the Urban Environment. “When it comes down to it, the amount of pollution in your neighborhood is directly related to the color of your skin, and the amount of money in your pocket.”

Dr. Sheats studies the cumulative effects that climate change and the burning of fossil fuels have on specific locations relative to their racial, ethnic, and economic makeup. And the correlation he found is worth noting. According to data collected by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the cumulative effects in an area increases as the number of minorities living in that area increases. The same is true for lower-income communities.

Jersey City is a large, ethnically diverse city. Minorities make up nearly seventy percent of the population, and differing groups live in close proximity to one another. Jersey City is also the third most densely populated city in the country, behind only New York and San Francisco. But unlike those two cities, Jersey City is not one of the wealthiest. Despite the development of high-rise luxury apartments along the Hudson River and the gentrification of Historic Downtown, Jersey City’s share of residents living below the poverty line remains at a stubbornly high 17 percent, compared to only 9 percent statewide.

The proof supporting Dr. Sheat’s claims aren’t just in the trend lines. The raw data supports it as well. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the level of carbon monoxide in Jersey City’s air is nearly 35 percent higher than in the rest of the country, and its nitrogen dioxide level is more than double the national average. Both are considered significantly worse than average.

Of course, pollution is not the result of climate change, but a cause. So how do these demographic numbers tie to the effects of climate change? Easy, says Dr. Sheats. Lower- income, typically minority neighborhoods, have the least amount of resources to combat uncontrollable forces like flooding and high wind. If you don’t have the money to invest in your home’s roof, it’s more likely to blow away in a storm. If you can’t reinforce your home’s foundation, it’s more likely to take on flooding. The unfortunate convergence here is that the people who bear the most risk of the effects also take the most hits from the causes, including dangerous emissions from buses, poisonous sewage leaking into the city’s drinking water from factories along the Passaic River, and even a coal plant.

That’s right – a coal plant. PSE&G’s Hudson Generating Station in Jersey City is one of only two power plants that run on coal in the state, and according to a 2010 study by the NAACP, it is the second most toxic coal fired power plant in the United States.

Still, many argue that this sort of pollution has less to do with a city’s particular demographics than it has to do with its status as a city, and that nearly all highly concentrated population centers deal with similar issues. So how do race and income levels actually impact the level of pollution in an area? Dr. Sheats provides a possible answer: political clout.

Consider again PSE&G’s coal fired power plant in Jersey City. Within a three mile radius of the plant, 85 percent of the area’s 100,000-plus residents are African Americans with an average income of $10,000 per year. It is not an area with a powerful lobby, nor does it contribute heavily to political campaigns. For a large energy corporation looking to operate with the least resistance, it’s an attractive location.

While the pollution from a coal plant largely comes from the skies above, there’s another risk for Jersey City residents, except this one comes from below.

Resident holding signs against the Spectra Pipeline

Resident holding signs against the Spectra Pipeline – File photo Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

THE SPECTRA PIPELINE

In May of 2012, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave final approval to Spectra Energy of Houston for its $850 million project which will lay 15 miles of new pipeline that transports shale gas from points south through parts of Staten Island, Bayonne, and of course, Jersey City.

According to a map provided by Spectra Energy, six miles of pipeline will run through Jersey City, affecting neighborhoods like Paulus Hook, Greenville, Hamilton Park, Newport, and the Waterfront. It will carry methane gas underneath Liberty State Park, schools, churches, playing fields, backyards, transportation hubs, and thousands of homes.

Not a problem, say proponents of the pipeline, most notably New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He claims that the gas traveling through the pipeline is a cleaner, greener, and safer alternative to dirty heating oil. But environmental activists find three main problems with that assessment.

First, the source. New York City will be the main beneficiary of gas delivered by the pipeline, while the cities on the west side of the Hudson will not benefit at all, a point that has not been lost on former Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy. “We run all the risk, and our friends to the east get all the benefit,” Mr. Healy said in an interview with the New York Times.

The second problem, according to environmentalists, is the notion that shale gas is safer. Much has been made of the means used to extract the gas: fracking. And while the concerns about how that process can contaminate the local water supply are worthy of examination, what’s of greater concern to Jersey City residents is the safety of how it’s transported: the pipeline. And according to Maya Van Rossum, head of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, there is ample cause for concern.

“Even the industry admits that some methane gas escapes the pipes and is released into the soil,” Ms. Van Rossum said at a recent town hall meeting in Jersey City. “But they claim that as long as it stays between three and five percent, we’re good. But the fact is, pipelines lose up to ten percent of the methane. That’s a lot.”

And finally, environmental activists’ third problem with the New York Mayor’s comment: that shale gas is greener.

“It’s been the longtime position of industry that shale gas is good for climate change,” said Ms. Van Rossum. “But they’re wrong. The methane released from shale gas produces a greenhouse effect that’s 105 times worse than carbon dioxide. They claim it helps climate change, but it actually hurts.”

As Mr. Healy alluded to, it’s a whole lot of risk, with no apparent benefit.

POLITICAL WILL

So why is nothing being done about it?

On that front, most activists agree: there’s no political will to do so. And although their ire is not reserved for one party in particular, many conservationists point to the administration of Governor Chris Christie, especially in light of the praise he received for his handling of Superstorm Sandy.

“In September of 2011, there was Hurricane Irene”, pointed out Maya Von Rossum at a Jersey City town hall meeting in April. “Sandy wasn’t until October of the next year. And what did Governor Christie do to curb emissions in the meantime? Nothing.”

For many climate change activists, Governor Christie’s inaction is not what angers them the most, but the active steps he has taken to undercut their hard-won efforts. Like in 2010, when the governor diverted roughly $65 million from the state’s Regional Greenhouse Initiative, which supports renewable energy, energy efficiency, and customer assistance projects, to help balance the state’s $10.7 billion budget. At the time, Governor Christie rationalized the cuts by citing that New Jersey was facing a fiscal “state of emergency.” And while acknowledging that the state’s financial health is of great public concern, climate change activists argued that the long-term effects of burning fossil fuel present a much more dire emergency.

Not so, say industry spokespeople. They claim that the risks of fracking and pipelines are greatly exaggerated, and that groups opposing them are being naïve. They argue that if environmentalists are so unwilling to deal with the risks of energy exploration, then they should be willing to live without the benefits also, namely, energy. But that’s just more industry spin, says Kate Millsaps, Conservation Program Coordinator for the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter.

“There are better options available,” Ms. Millsaps said. “Solar and offshore wind bring more jobs to the state, and the same benefits, without the risk.”

Still, if it’s such a sharply defined issue, if clean energy is so clearly preferable to fracking and more traditional energy practices, why isn’t progress being made more quickly? Simple.

“Because gas companies have a lot of money,” Ms. Millsaps said.

Hudson Generating Station

Hudson Generating Station – Photo Mickey Mathis © Harmony Media, NJ

WE CAN’T KEEP WAITING

In the week after Superstorm Sandy, when nearly all of Jersey City was without power and many neighborhoods were underwater, information was hard to come by. People wondered when their lights would come on, when the PATH, Light Rail, and buses would start running, when the water would be safe to drink.

In City Hall, officials were aware that the lack of information was a problem, but they were unsure how to deal with it. Going on television with a series of announcements wouldn’t be particularly effective in a city where most residents had no means of powering their televisions. That’s when another idea was tossed around. Perhaps the police could go around town, especially to neighborhoods less likely to have wireless communication, and make basic announcements with a bullhorn. No, was the simple response. Their job was to maintain order, not deliver public service announcements.

Days became more than a week, and still residents of districts including Greenville and Bergen-Lafayette remained without electricity. People were becoming restless, nerves were getting frayed, and finally, the bullhorns came out. Civilians and police* drove up and down the streets of storm-ravaged neighborhoods with basic announcements about power restoration, available supplies, and the need for more patience. For some, this practical decree was emblematic of a larger proclamation. “Sandy was a wake-up call,” says Dr. Nicky Sheats.

Before the 2012 storm brought flooding and outages, and exposed the weaknesses in the city’s infrastructure, climate change was an abstract problem for many residents. For real action to be taken, that view must change, says Dr. Sheats.

“Climate change is not a political issue,” he says. “It’s a neighborhood issue. Sandy has brought things home to a lot of people in a way they hadn’t considered before.” For activists like Dr. Sheats who focus on environmental justice, Sandy presents an opportunity, a chance to make it clear to people in urban areas that the coal factory a mile away, the bus route outside of your house, and the flood waters that come through your door, are all part of the same cycle.

“The task is making it clear to people how climate change affects them every day,” says Dr. Sheats.

And for a town like Jersey City, one vulnerable to both the effects of climate change and its many causes, that task may wind up being very easy to accomplish.

This article appeared in the the 2013 Summer issue of JCI Magazine. © Harmony Media, NJ. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without written permission.

Photos: Mickey Mathis & Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

Brendan Carty

the lead writer at Thinkmojo, a creative agency, and freelances for several publications. His work has appeared on CBS Interactive, ESPN, and Funny or Die, among others. He lives in Jersey City Heights with his wife and daughter.