Making Sure Murphy Administration Prioritizes Environmental Justice

Activists argue poor communities of color have been adversely affected by pollution in all its forms for far too long

Credit: Port Authority of New York and New Jersey
The Covanta incinerator in Newark’s Ironbound district
Environmental and urban community activists met with officials from the new administration in Trenton on Wednesday in an effort to ensure that Gov. Phil Murphy’s priorities for New Jersey lead to environmental improvements in urban and low-income communities.

For too long, cities like Newark, Trenton, and Camden have hosted a disproportionate concentration of pollution-generating plants and incinerators that affect the quality of life and the health of residents, say members of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, which co-sponsored the first statewide summit on environmental justice and climate issues. The activists see an opportunity to push the pro-environment Murphy administration to include in its new initiatives policies that will clean up areas that have borne the burden of pollution for too long.

Nicky Sheats, a founding member of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance
“If you live in New Jersey, the amount of pollution in your neighborhood is connected to the color of your skin and the amount of money in your pocket,” said Nicky Sheats, director of the Center for the Urban Environment of the John S. Watson Institute for Public Policy at Thomas Edison State University and a founding member of the NJEJA. “New Jersey should use its climate-change mitigation policy to address the disproportionate amount of pollution in environmental-justice communities.”

The NJEJA has not yet defined environmental-justice communities here, but other states have used percentages of a municipality’s population that is low income and the proportion of population consisting of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other people of color.

“We have the opportunity in New Jersey to be a leader in environmental justice,” Sheats said.

Addressing environmental justice

Kathleen Frangione, Gov. Murphy’s chief policy advisor
Co-sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based public-policy organization, the summit held at Mercer County Community College in Trenton allowed activists to talk about the issue of environmental justice and ways to address it with members of the Murphy administration. Two of the speakers were high-level officials: Kathleen Frangione, Murphy’s chief policy advisor, and Debbie Mans, the new deputy commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection. Both women pledged Murphy’s support for their cause.

“You have a friend and advocate in your new governor, Phil Murphy,” Frangione said. “He has a deep commitment to environmental justice … This administration recognizes and appreciates the complexity of this issue. We are considering a full range of options for addressing it.”

She spoke specifically about Murphy’s executive orders that set a goal for generating energy through offshore wind farms by 2030 and getting New Jersey back in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, acknowledging that the NJEJA has concerns with the state’s efforts on the latter.

After just two weeks in office, Murphy signed an order to have the state re-enter the multistate program to reduce pollution from power plants by participating in the carbon budget-trading program. RGGI imposes an allowance on carbon emissions, a cost passed on to ratepayers but returned to states to help fund clean-energy programs. He directed that the funds the state receives be allocated to projects in environmental-justice communities disproportionally impacted by the effects of pollution.

Following through on promises

For the advocates, though, that is not enough. They said that, too often, officials put policies in place that support environmental justice but do not follow or enforce them.

“All across the country, you see states setting up advisory committees and task forces and implementing procedural laws, and meanwhile, permits keep pouring in,” said Ana Baptista, chair of the Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management graduate program at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy at The New School in New York City. “Nothing really changes.”
Often, she said, officials will say there is no need to write environmental-justice policies into a law because they will be negotiated later, but that never happens.

In the case of RGGI, Sheats said the program will lead to a drop in greenhouse-gas emissions in the state. The rules New Jersey is in the processing of drafting should “guarantee reductions in emissions in and near environmental-justice communities,” Sheats said. While the greenhouse-gas emissions themselves are not a problem for residents’ health, the other pollutants that are released into the atmosphere with them do affect people. Small particulate matter is the worst, getting into the lungs of those who breathe them in and leading to asthma and premature deaths.

“We will have failed” if the state succeeds with its climate-change mitigation policies and stops it from worsening but does not also reduce pollution in environmental-justice communities, said Sheats.

Cumulative effects of pollution

Another issue the state must address is that of the cumulative impacts of pollution from numerous sources on a community. Baptista said, for instance, that the renewal of the permits for three energy plants — one of which is the Covanta incinerator — in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood are all currently pending. Each permit allows for a certain amount of pollution that is within levels deemed safe, but when the cumulative impact of all three are taken into account, it is clear that residents are “being bombarded” by hazardous pollutants. The state needs to put in place a tool to assess all the impacts together to inform its decisions on whether to renew permits or grant new ones.

Currently, “it’s the most frustrating process ever,” Baptista said.

Summit attendees discussed other ways to help environmental-justice communities.

For instance, some said the state and utilities can set aside a greater portion of funds for energy efficiency programs for these areas; even just requiring landlords to participate in weatherization programs when a majority of tenants want them would help.

Another suggestion is that more communities adopt local cumulative-impacts ordinances, like the landmark one Newark implemented in 2016. The first of its kind in the nation, the ordinance requires industrial and commercial development proposals to provide information about the cumulative environmental impacts to help citizens and officials determine if the development is in the best interest of residents or would lead to an increase in health hazards.

Manz assured the participants that the administration is committed to working with environmental-justice leaders on initiatives, but asked for some patience.

“We are going to need to take our time to do it right and make sure what we’re doing is right for New Jersey,” she said.

Some of those present said it’s hard to be patient, given the residents of affected communities have been suffering for decades.

Held on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., several summit participants mentioned that working for environmental justice is part of continuing King’s legacy.

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12), the state’s first African-American woman elected to Congress, has long been a supporter of civil rights. She sees the fight for environmental justice for communities at the federal level as a similar battle, particularly given the hostile administration in Washington.

“Everyone needs clean water we can drink and air we can breathe,” she said. “You need to be in the face of elected officials … Social media, telephone calls, emails. Just show up. What matters is that you show them what the will of the people is. It’s an opportunity for all of us to say what we want this country to look like.”