Overcoming Camden’s Toxic Past

November 29, 2010

This week, we continue our guest series with the Center for Urban Environmental Sustainability (CUES) and their county extension agents to learn how they are providing technical assistance and building community capacity to generate solutions to pressing urban environmental issues in New Jersey •

The Camden Green Infrastructure Initiative

New Jersey citizens really do have a lot to be thankful for – the majority of the state’ s residents, whose median household income is ranked number one in the U.S., are living relatively comfortably (despite the current economic stresses). New Jersey also has the highest percentage of millionaire residents (7.2%) in the U.S. However, in the midst of our plenty, the city of Camden, with nearly 80,000 residents, is home to one of the poorest communities in the state.

Over 90% of Camden’s residents are African-American or Hispanic, and these families are not part of the New Jersey middle-class. The Camden median household income is $23,421—less than half of New Jersey’s median household income—and in 1999, over 35% of Camden residents lived below the poverty level.

Camden Green Infrastructure Initiative

Excavating for Rain Garden Park at Waterfront South 3 in Camden

The city of Camden covers slightly more than 10 square miles and has a population density of 7,683 people per square mile. Like Newark, Camden’s long and prolific industrial history has resulted in severe environmental problems that its residents face each day. The root cause of many of these problems is urbanization and historic environmental neglect of urban centers. The environmental legacy left to the City and its residents include:

• Two federal Superfund sites and 114 known contaminated sites. Common pollutants are lead, mercury, PCB’s (chemicals formerly used as coolants and lubricants in electrical equipment, now banned from use), solvents (TCE, PCE, and other volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs), arsenic, and petroleum products;

• Over 350 operating facilities that emit air pollutants, discharge contaminants to soil or water, and/or use hazardous substances. These factories include power plants, a cement grinding facility, a gypsum plant, and chemical, paint, and food processing companies;

• South Jersey Port Corporation operations at two port terminals in South Camden. The port operations cause diesel emissions from the 400 ships that visit the Port each year, and from diesel-operated loading equipment. The Port also provides space for heavy industrial uses. The Port operations and related industrial facilities bring in over 300,000 diesel trucks per year traveling through South Camden neighborhoods;

• Serving as a regional center for waste disposal and “recycling” facilities, such as the regional incinerator, the county sewage treatment plant, and at least 30 businesses that recycle scrap metal, hazardous waste barrels, construction debris, and other contaminated waste; and

• Drinking water contamination. For decades, until 1998, Camden’s drinking water came from wells, including the wells at the Puchack Well Field Superfund site in Pennsauken, that were severely contaminated with VOCs, hexavalent chromium, and other toxins. Camden water more recently has still shown some VOC contamination.

With the numerous brownfield sites, vacant and abandoned commercial and residential properties, new residents and businesses will be needed to invest in Camden over the next several decades. It is imperative that Camden develop plans that allow for an improved quality of life for current and future residents. Sustainable practices must be implemented simultaneously with economic growth to maximize benefits for Camden’s residents. Given the current availability of land and space throughout much of the City, planning and designing for easily accessible neighborhood services, sustainable communities, and green space can become a reality.

Concept Design for Camden

Concept plan for Waterfront South 2 in Camden

Rutgers faculty, staff and the Camden County Environmental County Agent are supporting Camden’s local activists, businesses, non-profit organizations and residents to implement solutions for the City’s environmental problems. With support from NJDEP, these collaborators are working to implement changes that will make a difference in the quality of life for the residents of Camden. Throughout each of the City’s 20 unique neighborhoods, residents at the grassroots level are working to build on political, economic, and social changes that capitalize on the positive attributes of Camden’s excellent location, diverse population, tremendous infrastructure, and rich culture. With reinvestment and revitalization plans being developed throughout the City, the opportunity is available for Camden residents to participate in green infrastructure planning and sustainable environmental resource management.

Why is Green Infrastructure Important in Camden?

“Green Infrastructure” uses natural processes to slow, treat or slowly absorb stormwater runoff. This natural approach to managing urban stormwater can be cost-effective, sustainable, and environmentally friendly because the stormwater is used to maintain or restore natural hydrology. Over the last two decades communities across the U.S. have been exploring the use of Green Infrastructure to protect and maintain the quality of their local rivers, streams, lakes, and estuaries from the impact of development and urbanization. In many of New Jersey’s older urban centers, water, stormwater, and sewer infrastructure systems are reaching the end of their functional life. Replacing this ancient infrastructure using Green Infrastructure techniques and technologies creates the opportunity to reduce maintenance costs and to build a more sustainable urban future. Green Infrastructure can help Camden reduce the demands on its existing infrastructure, and, where possible, extend its functional life, while providing cost-effective water management solutions that conserve and protect water resources and improve the quality of urban life for some New Jersey’s poorest citizens.

In highly urban settings, green infrastructure approaches offer a wide range of exciting possibilities that include:

• Green Roofs
• Rain Harvesting
• Downspout Disconnection
• Planter Boxes
• Rain Gardens
• Permeable Pavements
• Vegetated Swales
• Natural Retention Basins • Green Parking
• Green Streets & Highways
• Pocket Wetlands
• Trees & Urban Forestry
• Brownfield Redevelopment
• Infill and Redevelopment
• Riparian Buffers
• Habitat Preservation & Restoration

Green Infrastructure in Camden

Camden Green Infrastructure Initiative

Cramer Hill community garden project in Camden

In July 2010 the Rutgers Cooperative Extension (RCE) Water Resources Program entered into a partnership with the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA) to pilot a community-based initiative – this agreement will result in implementing green infrastructure projects throughout the Cities of Camden and Gloucester. The pilot program, led by Rutgers Environmental County Agent Mike Haberland, will reduce the negative impacts associated with urban runoff to local waterways and neighborhoods. Mike is focusing on combined sewer overflows, flooding, and the resulting sewer backups that affect private properties. This community-based initiative includes:

• Educating community leaders, businesses, and residents on the benefits and opportunities for green infrastructure projects;

• Providing training to local residents and contractors on green infrastructure installation techniques; and

• Establishing a network of community-based organizations to provide capacity for continual growth and expansion of the program.

During the first year of the Green Infrastructure Initiative, a City-wide Feasibility Study for Green Infrastructure projects (rain gardens, rain barrels, water harvesting, pervious paving, etc.) will be completed. Based on the results of the Feasibility Study, 40 priority demonstration projects will be identified throughout the City of Camden and Gloucester City. Through a series of local workshops and meetings with community leaders and activists from each project neighborhood, a community-based network will be established. Local support for the development, installation, operation, and maintenance of the green infrastructure projects will be led by the community networks.

Camden Green Infrastructure Initiative 2

Students from Summer Elementary School planting trees in their school Rain Garden

The Rutgers Environmental County Agent and the Water Resources Team will work with the community network to identify and secure funding to build the 40 demonstration projects, including rain gardens, water harvesting, and other Green Infrastructure to prevent stormwater from reaching the combined sewer systems in Camden and Gloucester City. The partners have established relationships with local community leaders in the City of Camden. We have also compiled background information and completed the mapping needed to assess the green infrastructure needs and opportunities in the 20 unique neighborhoods within the City of Camden and Gloucester City.

Organizations that have expressed support for the Camden Green Infrastructure Project and have formed a Steering Committee to help guide and direct efforts of the Initiative include:

• NJDEP Office of Brownfields
• Rutgers Camden/Walter Rand Institute
• Cooper’s Ferry Development Association
• Cramer Hill Community Development Corporation
• New Jersey Tree Foundation
• Heart of Camden
• Center for Transformation
• South Jersey Land and Water Trust
• Camden County Soil Conservation District
• Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Camden County
• Camden County 4-H

Camden Green Infrastructure Initiative 3

Cramer Hill community gardening project

Over the coming months the Rutgers Environmental County Agent, in collaboration with Rutgers faculty, staff, and the Steering Committee, will lead several next steps. A series of local workshops with community activists and leaders are being held and neighborhood site visits and tours will be conducted. A Rain Garden Community Park will be constructed on a former contaminated brownfield site in the Waterfront South neighborhood. Rutgers engineers are designing rainwater harvesting systems for community gardens in the Cramer Hill neighborhood. The Water Resources Team will conduct a Rain Garden training workshop for local landscape professionals and install two demonstration Rain Gardens. The Camden Green Infrastructure Initiative compliments Rutgers’ on-going stormwater management and education efforts in the Cooper River Watershed, where the Water Resources Team has partnered with Camden County 4H and the Camden County Soil Conservation District to bring Rain Garden programming into schools throughout Camden, Lindenwold, Haddonfield, and Lawnside.

For more information about the Camden Green Infrastructure Initiative, please contact Andy Kricun, Deputy Executive Director, CCMUA (856.541.3700) Mike Haberland, Environmental and Natural Resource County Agent for Camden & Burlington Counties (856.566.2914) or Jeremiah Bergstrom, Senior Project Manager at the RCE Water Resources Program (732.932.9800 x6126). To follow the progress of this exciting initiative, visit the CUES website.