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Bill Would Enforce Environmental Justice, Keep Polluters out of Poor Urban Areas

A new measure could make it much tougher to add more sources of pollution to "burdened" communities.

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The state has talked a lot in recent years about environmental justice -- a term used to question why major polluting facilities are often located in the poorest urban areas. But to many local activists, New Jersey has decidedly not backed up its words with deeds.

Newark's Ironbound District is a prime example of this predicament.

It has the largest garbage incinerator in the state; the nation’s fifth-largest plant for treating sewage; a major superfund site that has yet to be cleaned up nearly three decades after its discovery; and Liberty International Airport, a huge source of air pollution. A new natural gas plant also is expected to begin operating in the next few years.

That might change, though, thanks to a bill (A-3836) now floating in the Legislature, a measure sponsored by Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-Essex), the chairwoman of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee.

Her bill, the subject of a hearing this week in her committee but not voted on, would make it much more difficult to locate major facilities in low-income and minority areas.

If those areas already have facilities with major air permits, a property on the state’s list of hazardous waste sites, and a plant handling very toxic substances, among other issues, the state would be required to conduct a much more exhaustive review before any new project could be approved by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The move won support from environmental groups.

“It permits the state to say no when it makes sense,’’ said David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation. “These communities are unfairly and disproportionately targeted. We continue to push these projects into communities without power.’’

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed. “It’s not a mistake that poor communities, communities of color, get these facilities. We continue to push these facilities into communities without power,’’ he said.

Assemblyman Scott Rudder (R-Burlington) argued, however, that many of these new facilities are proposed to be built where the infrastructure and capacity to accommodate them already exists. “Generally, there plants go where there is infrastructure and capacity,’’’ he said.

His comments were echoed by Hal Bozarth, executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council. Since 1988, toxic emissions from New Jersey plants have declined by 85 percent, according to Bozarth.

Eric DeGesero, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Fuel Merchants Association, told the committee, the primary sources of air pollution in urban areas is not major facilities, but from transportation, planes, and other vehicles.

Other business lobbyists also raised concerns. “It will add another layer of bureaucracy for business to choose whether to consider our state for investment,’’ said Michael Egenton, a senior vice president of the New Jersey Department of Commerce

Under the bill, the DEP would be required to prepare a report assessing the environmental impact of a proposed project in any so-called burdened community. The bill also would give final approval of the project to the governing body of the municipality where the project is proposed.

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