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Environmental Justice: The New Civil Rights?

U.S. Sen. Booker backs bill that would make it easier for low-income neighborhoods, communities of color to block projects that would add to pollution

Sen. Cory Booker
Credit: NJTV News Online
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)

Calling it the civil rights issue of their time, environmental justice advocates yesterday backed a new bill to ensure low-income and minority communities have the tools to fight projects that increase pollution in their neighborhoods.

The legislation, to be introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), aims to expand protections to communities burdened by developments that cause environmental problems and impact the health of residents.

With scores of diesel trucks speeding by nearby on Route 280 during a press conference, Booker called the bill “a commonsense’’ approach to the problems imposed on communities like Newark that affect the health and wellbeing of their residents.

His bill would essentially codify an executive order issue by former President Bill Clinton that sought to protect so-called environmental justice communities from health impacts from pollution.

environmental justice advocates
Environmental justice advocates and community organizers together with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker

“Many communities across the country are facing environmental and public health threats that for too long have gone unaddressed, seemingly only noticeable to those who deal with the effects on a daily basis,’’ Booker said in the playground of McKinley School in Newark.

“This is unacceptable and our bill is an important step in changing this reality,’’ he said of the measure, the product of a months-long process with dozens of organizations.

Newark is a community that has borne its share of pollution. Within five miles of the school, there are two national superfund toxic waste sites, including parts of the Passaic River, Booker noted. The city also is home to one of the largest trash incinerators in the region, as well as a new natural-gas-fired power plant.

“If you live in New Jersey, if you live in the U.S., there is evidence that the amount of pollution in your neighborhood is related to the people of color in your community and the amount of money in their pockets,’’ said Nicky Sheats, a founder of the Environmental Justice Alliance.

Kim Gaddy, a Newark mother of three asthmatic children and environmental justice coordinator for Clean Water Action, said the issue is the current civil rights fight. “It should not matter that because I choose to live here their health is compromised,’’ she said.

Beyond making it easier for communities to sue to block unwanted projects, the bill would require federal agencies to develop strategies to deal with negative environmental and public health impacts on communities. It also would require permitting agencies to consider cumulative impacts on the environment and health in those decisions.

Booker acknowledged the legislation faces a difficult road to winning passage in the Republican-controlled Congress. “We are putting forward a bold strong bill. It might not happen in this session, but we will see this legislation passed,’’ he said.

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