Murphy, in Newark, promotes environmental agenda, defends against fracking support accusations

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy came to Newark to underscore his clean energy policy agenda. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy came to Newark to underscore his clean energy policy agenda and to try to even the score against critics who have challenged his environmental record.

Speaking at an entrance to Weequahic Park in the city's South Ward on Monday, Murphy laid out a policy plan that he maintains will prove that "economic growth, environmental protection, and environmental justice must and can all go together." 

"Environmental policy is not just something for our rural areas and our suburban centers, but is also critical to our cities," said Murphy, struggling to heard above a noisy nexus of truck, car, rail and airplane traffic converging on nearby Newark Airport and Port Newark, the largest on the East Coast. "Clean air and water is a right for all New Jerseyans."

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Murphy delineated several environmental initiatives designed to benefit environmental justice communities, which are specifically minority and low-income communities that may bear a disproportionate amount of negative environmental impacts, therefore receiving priority consideration. 

Murphy reiterated his plan for New Jersey to transition fully to clean energy by 2050. This plan includes infrastructure initiatives to reduce harmful exhaust emissions in high-density areas, including transportation electrification and the creation of a community solar program meant to widen access to solar power for New Jersey's low-income residents. 

Murphy also noted the need for reliable mass transit as part of a wider environmental justice agenda. He made his remarks within a mile of the location of a proposed PATH station close to Newark Airport that would service Newark's South Ward. 

However, Murphy's Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign rivals have tried to knock the former U.S. Ambassador to Germany and retired Goldman Sachs executive off track in recent days by drawing scrutiny to his environmental record.

During last week's televised primary debate, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville) noted a 2013 speech Murphy gave in Germany in which he spoke positively about hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking,” a controversial process of extracting natural gas opposed by many environmental groups.  

Murphy's investment portfolio also has come under attack from his critics, pointing to his financial disclosure form submitted to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. He has invested in more than three dozen oil, energy and chemical companies, including the member companies of the controversial PennEast Pipeline proposal to build a 36-inch pipe carrying natural gas across a 115-mile route from Pennsylvania to Mercer County. 

Murphy, along with the other Democratic gubernatorial candidates, has declared his opposition to the pipeline proposal. But Robert Lynch, a member of a group of about a half-dozen demonstrators who protested Murphy's appearance in the park, was not convinced.

"We're really concerned about some of the information that's coming out right now about Phil Murphy's investments," said Lynch, of Chester Township, wearing a green and white t-shirt with the words PennEast crossed out. "We just want some answers."

"Fracking hasn't been, isn't, and will never be a part of New Jersey," said Murphy when asked by TAPintoNewark about the recent questions regarding his environmental record, emphasizing his apparent volte-face on the issue. "We're not going to frack in New Jersey, and we don't want the waste that's related to fracking coming through us. 

"As it relates to investments, that's never guided my policy positions, ever,and it won't start now," Murphy added, noting that if he wins the gubernatorial election, he will put his investments in a blind trust. "My commitment to the environment and environmental justice runs deep and long. [My investments] have never impacted one speck how I feel about public policy, nor will it ever." 

Wisnewski's campaign countered Murphy.

"Phil Murphy’s private investments make money from harming the very people he claims to help. How private actions square up against public statements is one of the few ways voters have to judge Phil Murphy. And on this he is failing," said Wisniewski campaign manager Kevin Keefe in a written statement. "He must come clean about owning fracking and pipeline holdings while advocating the opposing policy position.”

Murphy's appearance in Newark to discuss an environmental justice agenda is not coincidental. Once a major manufacturing center, New Jersey's largest city is still dealing with the effects of lingering post-industrial environmental contamination. The former Diamond Alkali plant in the city's Ironbound section, for example, produced the herbicide Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War, leaving behind the toxic byproduct of dioxin. 

When asked by TAPintoNewark what the state can do further environmental remediation, Murphy pointed to those who created the problem.

"The polluters have to be first up to bat in order to pay for the remediation," Murphy said. "We've got a federal government that's become very unreliable. We've got an EPA administrator (Scott Pruitt) that doesn't accept the reality of climate change. We're going to have to find the money to do the right thing." 

The New Jersey chapters of national environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, the League of Conversation Voters and Clean Water Action continue to support Murphy. Kim Gaddy, an environmental justice organizer for Clean Water Action in New Jersey, pointed out the stakes of inconsistent environmental policies. 

"This is community right here is what I call a diesel death zone, and it's based on the zip code and the color of our skin," Gaddy, a fourth-generation Newarker, South Ward resident, member of the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board and mother of three asthmatic children. "Communities where people of color reside are disproportionately impacted by pollution. What happens locally needs to connect to what happens on a statewide perspective. We have to tie all of these concerns together." 

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