Environmental-Justice Bill Would Curb Pollution in ‘Burdened Communities’

Tom Johnson | February 25, 2020 | Energy & Environment
Before new facilities could be built that add to toxic stress on a community, cumulative impacts of pollution would have to be determined
Credit: ACE Solid Waste via Flickr
Waste-transfer station.

For decades, environmental-justice communities burdened with power plants, trash incinerators and sewage-treatment plants within their borders have all but begged policymakers to prevent new facilities from being built that would worsen pollution problems there.

Now, a bill moving through the Legislature may give local officials and communities the tools they need to win those fights. The legislation (S-232), approved by a Senate committee yesterday, would allow the state Department of Environmental Protection to assess the cumulative impacts on a community and public health if a new or expanded facility is permitted.

“The color of one’s skin or the thickness of your wallet should not determine your ability to breathe clean air,’’ said Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), the sponsor of the bill, which has been debated by lawmakers for a couple years.

“This bill is better than the last time it came before your committee,’’ Singleton said, an assessment backed by both environmental groups and at least one business group.

A continuing concern

The whole issue of environmental-justice communities — those burdened with power plants, garbage incinerators and waste-transfer stations — has long been voiced by local communities, arguing pollution burdens should be reduced, without much success.

Many environmental groups, and one prominent business organization (the Chemical Industry Council of New Jersey), praised the bill as a good first step to addressing those concerns, raising the bar for adding to the pollution in those communities, typically homes to low- and moderate-income residents.

“This legislation has lingered for far too long,’’ said Lee Clark, of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.

Defining burdened communities

The legislation directs the DEP to compile a list of “burdened communities,’’ most recently determined by being ranked in the bottom 33% for median-income households and being home to a power plants, trash incinerator, sludge combustor or incinerator, sewage-treatment plant,  transfer or recycling station, landfill or major source of air pollution as defined by the federal Clean Air Act.

The bill provides for more public hearings on such facilities and a requirement the DEP assess the environmental affect on the community of absorbing cumulative impacts.

But several business organizations argued against the measure, including the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. Ray Cantor, vice president of governmental affairs, expressed concerns about the definition of “burdened communities’’ and how cumulative impacts would be determined by state regulators.

“If environmental justice, by itself, could be subjected to an easy solution, it would have been solved decades ago,’’ Cantor said.

But Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, had a different perspective: “If they were trying to build an incinerator or power plant in Rumson, Upper Montclair, Alpine or Haddonfield, they would take a careful look at permitting the impacts of pollution. Of course, no would consider putting those facilities in those areas,’’ he said.