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Op-Ed: NJ’s Next Governor Should Champion Environmental Justice

It's time that New Jersey recommit itself to being a leader on environmental protection through an affirmative environmental justice policy

Ana Isabel Baptista
Ana Isabel Baptista

While New Jersey prepares for a new governor, important questions about the state’s environment, health, and equity remain unanswered.

New Jersey was once a leader in environmental protection, passing innovative policies like pollution prevention and stringent air-quality standards. Today it ranks fifth among states with the largest “pollution gaps,” that is, states having “racial inequities that exist when it comes to exposure to pollution from car exhaust and power plants,” according to Sydney Brownstone, “The 10 Most Polluted States for People of Color,” (Co.EXIST, April 16, 2014).

In 2012, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) stated, “Improving air pollution in these affected areas is one of the NJDEP’s greatest challenges.” While some areas of New Jersey have experienced improvements in overall environmental quality, others have languished and continue to suffer from some of the highest concentrations of pollution and environmental health risks in the nation. These places tend to be in low income or communities of color, like the cities and towns in the urban corridor running from Paterson and Newark down to Camden.

These are also communities that suffer from the legacies of industrial pollution, white flight, urban disinvestment, and racial-zoning practices. It's no surprise then that these "environmental justice" communities are impacted by the relatively high concentration of multiple pollutants emanating from multiple sources that combine with social vulnerabilities in the population to produce something called “cumulative impacts.”

Before the Christie administration, the NJDEP developed an Environmental Justice Screening Tool that examined the patterns of environmental burdens across the state and found that as the proportion of the population living in poverty or the percentage of people of color increased, pollution from multiple sources also increased. This was an attempt by the state to begin to grapple with the issue of cumulative impacts.

Unfortunately, under Gov. Chris Christie we've seen a retraction of the state's environmental protection efforts, particularly with respect to environmental justice and cumulative impacts. Eight years ago, the Christie administration pulled the plug on the further development or use of the EJ screening tool. They refused to release any information about how cumulative impacts were being examined or even addressed.

It's time that New Jersey recommit itself to being a leader on environmental protection through an affirmative environmental justice policy. The New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance (NJEJA) together with its member organizations have advocated for decades for the state to incorporate environmental justice considerations into its decisionmaking processes like permitting. The new governor can forge a path toward environmental justice by enacting an executive order on Environmental Justice and Cumulative Impacts as a prelude to legislation that will protect overburdened neighborhoods by decreasing existing levels of pollution while protecting them from additional pollution.

NJDEP’s nascent cumulative impacts screening tool could then be resurrected and used to inform permitting, enforcement, and resource allocation decisions. The bill can also mandate the creation of an interagency task force that includes representatives of communities and state agencies to help guide future state environmental justice policies. For New Jersey to grow and to thrive, especially with climate change at our doorstep, we need courageous leaders who are committed to making good on the promise that everyone deserves a clean and healthy place to live, work, and play.

Ana Isabel Baptista, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at The New School University and a member of the board of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance.

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