Legislators yesterday voted to give so-called “environmental justice” communities more say in blocking new and expanded projects that could increase pollution in their neighborhoods.
The legislation (S-1700), approved by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, marks the most significant step the state has taken to address the disproportionate impacts of pollution and contamination in poor urban communities, according to advocates.
“Environmental injustice is unacceptable and this bill is the first really significant bill to address the lack of environmental equity in communities of color and to give the state the power it needs to stop it,’’ said Kim Gaddy, a Newark resident and an organizer for Clean Water Action.
The issue, a top environmental priority for the Murphy administration, aims to reverse decades of policy that has left communities of color and low-income populations burdened with an excess of facilities that pollute and handle waste and other contaminants.
Newark’s Ironbound is a prime example of an environmental justice community, according to Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. Within a section of the community is a cluster of three power plants, a garbage incinerator and three Superfund waste sites.
“For far too long, we have dumped these facilities that no one wants in these communities,’’ Tittel said. “For the first time, this bill puts teeth into environmental justice measures.’’
Giving people a say
The bill sets up a two-tiered system for giving communities more input into the process of siting new or expanded facilities, such as major new air permits for plants, water-treatment facilities, waste-transfer stations and solid-waste facilities. Before any new permit is issued within such a “burdened community,’’ the state Department of Environmental Protection would have to assess the cumulative impact of adding new pollution to the area and hold public hearings.
The bill would give the state more authority to deny a permit if the department found it would constitute an unreasonable risk to the health of residents within the community.
“We need to do a better job of where we site these facilities,’’ said Sen. Troy Singleton, a Democrat from Burlington County and the sponsor of the bill.
The legislation drew opposition from business lobbyists who warned it would add another layer of bureaucracy to a system already burdensome to navigate.
“This bill creates a redundant process that is unnecessary,’’ said Dennis Toft, an attorney speaking in behalf of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. “All this bill accomplishes is add another review process to an already lengthy system.’’
Others disagreed. “We have a serious problem in New Jersey,’’ said Nicky Sheats of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance. “The amount of pollution in your neighborhood is related to the color of your skin and the money in your pocket. This is unacceptable,’’ he said.
The original bill included a provision that would have allowed the governing body of a municipality to block the DEP from issuing a permit for a new or expanded facility, but it was deleted by the committee.