Op-Ed: VW Settlement — an Opportunity for Environmental Justice

Bhavini A. Doshi | September 28, 2017 | Opinion
Dense urban centers in New Jersey suffer from multiple sources of air pollution and are home to significant minority and low-income populations

Bhavini A. Doshi
The State of New Jersey has before it a rare opportunity to help give electric vehicle (EV) and alternative-energy usage a major boost — with an eye toward environmental justice to boot. Volkswagen’s admission that it skirted nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions tests on millions of vehicles worldwide culminated in a settlement late last year. As part of the agreement, each state was allotted a pro rata share of award monies that must be used towards NOx —air pollution — mitigation projects. New Jersey’s award is approximately $65 million. When the governor accepts the funds, an agency will be tasked with allocation of the funds in accordance with the settlement terms.

In May, NJ Spotlight reported on the bill proposed by the Senate, S-3029, which has now also been sponsored by the Assembly and referred to committee for review.

The bill as written designates the DEP as trustee agency, and divides the sum into three categories, with the most detailed allocation going to the Port Authority for port improvements. A second category includes education/promotion of EV and charging infrastructure. The third category simply states projects which “otherwise reduce air pollution”, without further explanation. To be sure, the bill is a good start. Yet without a single reference to an allocation for local communities, municipalities, or schools, it does not reach its full potential. Should this be the outcome, then the bill would be an unfortunate lost opportunity to make meaningful impact within local communities, especially low-income and communities of color.

Under the Volkswagen Consent Decree, one of the clearly acceptable air-pollution mitigation projects is the conversion of school buses and transit buses to zero-emission vehicles. The reduction of diesel-fueled vehicles, especially those with frequent stops and regular idling, could have a major impact within local communities. It is well known that air pollution, particularly in densely populated urban areas with multiple sources of pollution, has real impacts upon short- and long-term human health. Children are especially vulnerable to asthma and other pollution-related symptoms, including death. Numerous studies have shown that Newark, for instance, faces “disproportionate impacts from multiple sources of air pollution.” Newark is well aware of this, and last year adopted the nation’s first “cumulative impacts” environmental justice policy ordinance to help draw more attention to and action for air pollution control.

Other dense urban centers in New Jersey also suffer from multiple sources of air pollution and are home to significant minority and low-income populations. These communities are surrounded by NOx emitters — ports, airports, bridges, tunnels, sewage plants, garbage incinerators, and factories, to name a few — on all sides. While conversion of vehicles from diesel to zero-emission in ports would be welcome, such communities would greatly benefit from vehicle upgrades right inside their neighborhoods. In addition, per the Consent Decree, government projects are eligible for up to 100 percent of the cost to upgrade, repower or replace diesel-powered government vehicles, making this a rare opportunity for local communities to convert their vehicles with little to no out-of-pocket costs to them.

Inclusion of environmental justice and local communities in New Jersey’s bill would be consistent with the stated language of the VW Settlement. The text of the settlement, at Appendix D, includes a requirement that every mitigation project receiving funds “mitigates the impacts of NOx emissions on communities that have historically borne a disproportionate share of the adverse impacts of such emissions.” Certain local communities within New Jersey certainly fit that criteria and historically have had few opportunities at mitigation. States, cities, and towns around the country are moving to change their transit buses and municipal and school fleets to zero-emission, either at once or incrementally as funds allow, so that their residents can breathe easier. Some have determined to use the VW funds exclusively for these purposes. New Jersey should also help its local communities jump start on this path, with environmental justice in mind.