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State Not Doing Enough to Protect Poor from Pollution, Advocates Argue

At NJ Spotlight on Cities conference, environmental justice session explores how to better serve minority communities, poor urban centers

Ana Baptista
Credit: Amanda Brown
Ana Baptista, a professor at the New School, discusses environmental justice with NJ Spotlight co-founder and energy and environment writer Tom Johnson.

The state needs to be more proactive in dealing with the pollution problems plaguing many of its minority communities and poorer urban areas, according to environmental justice advocates.

The amount of pollution a person is exposed to often is reflected in the “color of their skin and the amount of money in their pocket,’’ said Nicky Sheats, director of the Center for Urban Environment at Thomas Edison State University.

Increased asthma in the state’s cities, high levels of lead found in young children in communities around New Jersey, and unhealthy air pollution from diesel engines were among the issues raised during a NJ Spotlight panel discussion on environmental justice last week at a day-long conference at the Newark Performing Arts Center.

In environmental justice cities, the problems largely are a legacy of the past, a reflection of when the areas were a “magnet for many of the dirtier industries to locate and operate there in such a way without regard for the health and well-being of our communities,’’ said Ana Baptista, a professor of environmental policy and sustainability management at the New School.

Baptista, who grew up in Newark, noted many of those problems persist today. A native of Newark’s Ironbound, she noted a recent count of diesel trucks one morning by a school in the community found 300 vehicles had passed by the building in a single hour.

Diesel engines are a source of particulate pollution, which the federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates causes more than 200,000 premature deaths each year.

Many of those trucks depart from the Port of Newark, which a newly formed coalition is seeking to find ways to reduce emissions from the vehicles.

“The cancer risk related to diesel is so high we have to start thinking out of the box about it,’’ said Sheats, a founder of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, mentioning banning diesel vehicles from such areas as one option.

Lead poisoning is also a crisis facing New Jersey, particularly its children, added Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Network of New Jersey. The state had 11 cities and two counties where children were tested with elevated lead levels in their blood higher than those found in Flint, MI, where lead in drinking water became a national issue.

“We can solve this problem,’’ Berger said of New Jersey. “It requires resources and skills, but most of all, it requires the political will.’’

To Sheats, however, the problems are so pervasive that more aggressive steps should be taken to reduce the pollution people in environmental justice communities face every day, including mandated reductions in emissions for those areas.

“Every time we pass a law that deals with pollution and other things, we need an environmental justice carve-out,’’ he said. “That way collectively we can make a significant dent in the disproportionate pollution in those neighborhoods.’’

Newark has tried to address the problem by adopting — after a seven-year fight — a cumulative environmental justice impacts ordinance, Baptista noted. “It lays out the kind of industry and development we want in the city. The old model is ‘everything goes.’ This ordinance was an attempt to say no,’’ she said.

“We can solve most of these problems if we have the resources,’’ Berger said.

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