Op-Ed: Coronavirus Crisis Demands Environmental-Justice Response

The pandemic makes abundantly plain the deadly toll of racial and economic injustice in New Jersey
Ana Baptista

In this moment of global health crisis, communities of color and low-income, environmental-justice (EJ) communities are suffering from the devastating impacts of poor air quality and inequality. EJ communities in cities like Camden and Newark have long been the sacrifice zones where the legacy of pollution and racism converge and impact public health.

For decades, mounting evidence points to the correlation between income, race and environmental burdens. In New Jersey, the idea of cumulative impacts is no abstraction, it can be seen in the hundreds of polluting facilities that mar the landscape. In 2009, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection estimated cumulative environmental burdens using an environmental-justice screening tool that showed a significant correlation between race, income and areas with relatively high amounts of environmental burdens.

These color and low-income communities in our state suffer not just from environmental burdens but are already overburdened and vulnerable in a variety of other ways, including lacking access to quality health care, hazardous working conditions, poor housing, underlying medical conditions, socioeconomic stressors and food and energy insecurity, among many others. These intersecting conditions create vulnerabilities that exacerbate the impact of concentrated, disproportionate amounts of pollution.

COVID-19’s unequal toll

The COVID-19 crisis reminds us of how deadly and unequal these vulnerabilities make our communities. A recent Harvard study shows that “a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 (particulate matter) leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate.” There is also mounting evidence of the stark racial disparities in terms of COVID-related mortality. “Johns Hopkins University and American Community Survey indicate that to date, of 131 predominantly black counties in the U.S., the infection rate is 137.5/100,000 and the death rate is 6.3/100,000. This infection rate is more than threefold higher than that in predominantly white counties.” New studies point to the possibility that the coronavirus can be carried on air pollution particles and spread farther, infecting more people, especially in areas with higher levels of particulate matter.

In New Jersey, air pollution is already a serious public health concern for environmental-justice communities where facilities like power plants, garbage incinerators and chemical plants combine with emissions from thousands of trucks, airplanes, ships and cars. One egregious example of this is the Covanta incinerator in Newark. Over the past year, Covanta Newark reported at least 10 instances of violations, with visible bright-purple plumes emanating from its smokestack, likely the result of improperly burning iodine-laced waste. This facility also emits more particulate matter and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) than any other stationary source in Newark — emitting over seven times more NOx than the next largest emitter, according to the DEP’s DataMiner website. To add insult to injury, this same facility receives generous Renewable-Energy Credits from the state, despite these violations and the fact that there’s nothing renewable about burning garbage.

All in the same storm

We’re all in the same storm but we’re not in the same boat. COVID-19 reminds us of the urgency of attending to racial and social injustices in our society. Environmental justice should be our most urgent priority for environmental policymaking coming out of this crisis. Over the past 40 years, the state of New Jersey has issued more than four executive orders and dozens of policies acknowledging environmental justice but never daring to tackle the problem at its heart. The time for rhetoric is over: We need New Jersey to take bold action on environmental justice and not just pay lip service to it.

We can do this by passing Senator Troy Singleton’s Environmental Justice and Cumulative Impacts bill; adopting a definition of environmental-justice communities that is inclusive of communities of color and low-income communities; prioritizing emissions reductions at the source of pollution like power plants and incinerators; putting an end to investments in false solutions like garbage incinerators; investing in just and regenerative economic solutions like community solar and food hubs; and committing to aggressive enforcement in environmental-justice communities. The time for environmental-justice action is now!