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N.J. environmentalists increasingly at odds with Gov. Murphy, sue administration over what they say is inaction on climate change

Environmental groups disagree with Murphy's handling of other issues, including the Pinelands and a natural gas export project in South Jersey.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy.Read moreTom Gralish / MCT

Environmental organizations welcomed Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy four years ago, foreseeing a big change over his predecessor, Republican Chris Christie.

And some of Murphy’s polices have been welcomed, such as rejoining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and embracing offshore wind power.

But in a sign of growing discontent over a lack of action on other issues, a coalition of 120 environmental, community, faith, and grassroots groups sued the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection for what it says is failure to follow state law on climate change.

The coalition, EmpowerNJ, includes some of the state’s biggest and most active environmental groups: the New Jersey Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Environment New Jersey, and Food & Water Watch.

The groups cited a range of issues it has with the administration, including its handling of the Pinelands, a liquified natural gas export project in Gibbstown, and an expansion of highways in ecologically sensitive areas.

» READ MORE: N.J. Pinelands preserve will more than double in size with the addition of 200 acres

Thursday’s legal action is the result of a petition the coalition filed in July asking the DEP to formally set rules to achieve a 50% reduction in climate pollutants by 2030 — a goal set by the Murphy administration through an executive order.

However, the DEP denied that petition, saying reducing greenhouse gas emissions “requires deliberate and coordinated action by all levels of government, economic sectors, communities, and individuals” that will impact buildings, transportation, and electricity generation systems. No one state agency can issue a set of regulations that will address all that’s needed to be done by other departments. Rather, the DEP said it prepared a report recommending measures necessary to achieve climate goals and delivered it to lawmakers.

The coalition disagreed with the DEP’s assessment, and filed an appeal in state Superior Court, saying the agency’s refusal to set standards “is arbitrary and capricious” and conflicts with Murphy’s executive order. In addition, the appeal says the DEP not only has the power to set standards, but is obligated to do so under the Clean Air Act.

The groups say the issue is urgent: New Jersey is “ground zero” for climate change, they say, because of its coast and geography.

“There are only two ways to look at DEP’s outright denial of our petition: DEP has gone rogue or this Administration is uninterested in pursuing its own stated policies and state law,” John Reichman, chair of BlueWaveNJ’s Environment Committee, said in a statement. “If the Governor’s recent State of the State address is any indication, where climate change was virtually ignored, the latter appears to be the case.”

Spokespeople for the DEP, governor’s office, and state Attorney General’s Office, which has to respond to the suit, all said they could not comment on pending litigation.

The coalition also took aim at the administration’s overall approach to the environment.

For every good decision the Governor has made, such as developing offshore wind and opposing the PennEast pipeline, there have been bad ones such as allowing a gas pipeline to be built through the Pinelands,” the coalition said in a statement.

» READ MORE: New Jersey is getting $1B for water infrastructure, but asks: Will anyone come and get it?

The coalition also referred to alarms they’ve sounded about a major fuel export terminal, the Gibbstown Logistics Center in Gibbstown, Gloucester County, that they say will accelerate Pennsylvania fracking and worsen climate change. It would entail 100-car trains carrying dangerous liquefied natural gas from the shale-gas region, across Philadelphia, and end at the port. The state supported the project during a hearing of the Delaware River Basin Commission, and the DEP has proceeded to award some permits for the rail line.

They also oppose plans to widen the turnpike in South Jersey and for a new interchange off the Atlantic City Expressway, which the groups say would pave over environmentally sensitive areas in the Pinelands.

In recent months, various environmental groups have expressed unease with the administration, along with misgivings about Shawn LaTourette, Murphy’s DEP commissioner, who was once an attorney for a private law firm that defended corporations.

And in December, environmental groups joined in outcry when Murphy sought to appoint three people to the Pinelands Commission, an independent state agency charged with protecting the 1.1 million-acre Pinelands National Reserve, while also encouraging economic growth when needed.

The groups saw the nominees as having too many corporate ties. Murphy ditched one as a result.

Three new appointees took office this month: Theresa Lettman, Laura E. Matos, and Davon McCurry. Lettman has wide support from environmental groups.

But environmentalists object to McCurry, a former DEP official who is now head of market and government affairs for the global offshore wind power giant Ørsted, which is set to build projects off the New Jersey Coast. Ørsted is in partnership with PSEG, the parent of PSE&G, the state’s largest publicly owned utility provider. The coalition fears that partnership is looking to upgrade or run new transmission lines from the offshore wind projects through the Pinelands.

Matos is managing director of Kivvit, a corporate lobbying firm, leading many environmental groups to wonder how her appointment protects the Pinelands.

The groups have been at odds with the administration over its failure to establish clear policy regarding off-road vehicles, which many environmentalists say are running rampant through the ecologically sensitive areas of the Pinelands.

“Things are getting worse, not better,” said Jeff Tittel, former director of the N.J. Sierra Club and an Empower NJ steering committee member. “These off-road vehicles are causing a tremendous amount of damage. While the governor talks about protecting the climate and environment, his office and the DEP are doing the opposite.”