NJ Senate Bill Helps Environmental-Justice Communities Block Further Pollution

Tom Johnson | June 30, 2020 | Energy & Environment
Measure, which won early support from governor, allows overburdened communities to consider cumulative effect of pollution when another ‘dirty’ project is proposed
Credit: reallyboring via Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Incinerator

For the first time, New Jersey communities could be given a powerful new tool to block projects that would add to their pollution burden under a bill approved by the Senate Monday.

The legislation (S-232), which cleared the Senate in a 22-14-4 vote, has long been a priority for advocates who argue the state ignores the cumulative impacts of locating a new power plant or manufacturing facility in communities where residents already suffer the effects of pollution from incinerators, hazardous waste sites and sewage-treatment plants.

Its approval, after a decade of lobbying by activists, comes at a moment of reckoning for racial and environmental justice in the nation. To some, the bill is a model for the rest of the country — the most protective environmental-justice statute for communities oversaturated with toxic facilities.

The legislation would allow the state Department of Environmental Protection to consider the cumulative impacts in a community when a new permit is sought for a polluting project in “overburdened communities.’’ Previously, the DEP could only consider impacts from the project seeking a permit.

Early backing from Murphy, BPU

In a sign of those powerful undercurrents, Gov. Phil Murphy took the rare step of endorsing the bill earlier this month, prior to its approval from the Senate. In addition, the president of the Board of Public Utilities endorsed the concept — laid out in another Senate bill — of creating an Office of Clean Energy Equity to assure more funding goes to environmental-justice communities.

Its impact could be widespread. The bill’s definition of “overburdened communities,’’ could apply to more than 300 municipalities and over 4 million residents. The legislation still needs to be approved by the Assembly.

“In many ways, this has been the ‘holy grail’ of the environmental-justice movement,’’ said Nicky Sheats, of the New Jersey Environmental Alliance. “We get so frustrated when they put one more polluting facility in an environmental-justice community when they already have so many. At some point, they have to say no.’’

Ray Cantor, a vice president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said his organization is sympathetic and understanding of the issues in communities that suffer environmental impact from new projects.

As drafted, the bill would essentially redline any new manufacturing facility or expansion in large parts of New Jersey, Cantor said. “There’s a better way to address this problem,’’ he added.

The bill establishes several criteria for what qualifies as an “overburdened community,” mostly those with significant nonwhite or low-income populations. In addition, the community must also house major sources of air pollution, such as power plants, sewage-treatment facilities, incinerators or landfills.

Rights, regardless of ZIP code

“By tackling this problem head on, New Jersey has an opportunity to send a clear message that everyone — regardless of their ZIP code, income or race — deserves the right to breathe clean air, to drink clean water, and to live free of toxic pollutants,’’ said Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), the bill’s sponsor in a news release.

“It is long overdue. There is nothing more to say,’’ said Maria Lopez-Nunez of the Ironbound Community Corp. ‘’It’s the first step to giving the state the power to say no.’’

As environmental advocates, they have to keep watching the state to make sure it exercises that power, she said. “Here in the Ironbound community, we haven’t seen it happen yet.’’

The issue is important to environmental-justice advocates because low- and moderate-income communities have largely missed out on the benefits of a clean-energy economy, even though ratepayers contribute to a clean-energy fund that finances many state-subsidized programs, advocates say.