Lawmakers are poised to act Monday on a pair of bills aimed at affording environmental justice communities more tools to fight pollution and to switch to cleaner forms of energy within their borders.
The legislation, long sought by advocates seeking to reduce unhealthy levels of pollution impacting low-income communities and communities of color across the state, is expansive, affecting more than 310 municipalities and more than 4 million people in ‘’overburdened communities.’’
But the broad scope of one of the bills (S-232) worries critics, who note under the bill’s definition of overburdened communities, it includes parts of some of New Jersey’s most well-heeled municipalities, such as Alpine, Princeton, Saddle River and Chatham, to name just a few.
“In every community, there always is another side of the tracks,’’ said Maria Lopez-Nuñez, deputy director of the Ironbound Community Corporation. “We want to protect those people, too. We want to protect more people, not less.’’
The scope of the bill is widespread because it uses census blocks to determine areas of municipalities that qualify as overburdened under the criteria established by the legislation — 35% of households in the census blocks subject to the law qualify as low-income, according to the U.S. Census; 40% are minority; and 40% have limited English proficiency.
“It’s not targeted,’’ said Ray Cantor, a vice president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. “It spreads its impact to as much as half the state. We think it should be limited to areas where there are actual concerns about pollution levels and where there already are multiple stressors.’’
The Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee and Senate Environment Committee plan action on two bills, both sponsored by Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington). S-232, already passed by the Senate, would require the state to consider the cumulative impacts of locating a new power plant or manufacturing facility where residents already suffer the effects of pollution from incinerators, Superfund toxic waste sites and other industrial facilities.
Murphy lends his support
Singleton has been pushing for the bill to be enacted for several years, but picked up significant support when Gov. Phil Murphy, in a rare endorsement of a bill pending in the Legislature, backed it last month.
“Decades of inaction have led to environmental disparities throughout the state, creating overburdened communities that are unjustly exposed to significant air and water pollutants,’’ Murphy said at the time. “We must prevent further environmental burdens on residents in our urban, rural and low-income areas.’’
Singleton agreed, saying the problems of communities being overburdened with pollution levels — even in relatively small portions of a municipality — are widespread. “This issue transcends so many places in New Jersey,’’ he said. “It is clear overburdened communities are replete throughout the state.’’
But Michael Egenton, executive vice president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged he is mystified how many places wound up on the list of overburdened communities.
“We recognize the intent, but the concern is creating impediments and hurdles to perpetuate growth in the cities,’’ Egenton said. “The criteria need to be adjusted.’’
Singleton disagreed. “I don’t think the folks in the business community are environmental champions. This isn’t a zero-sum game where economic development can be separated from environmental protection,’’ he said.
Lopez-Nuñez agreed, saying the highest levels of review by the state Department of Environmental Protection are only triggered by air permits from major facilities.
Investments in solar, energy-efficiency projects
The other bill (S-2484) up before the Senate committee would tap at least 10% of the state’s clean-energy program to spur investment in solar and energy-efficiency projects, as well as job training opportunities in overburdened communities. The definition would be identical to those in the other Singleton bill.
The legislation is intended to reverse one of the major criticisms of the clean-energy program — most of the dollars to build solar and other renewable projects went to suburban communities rather than urban areas where energy costs amount to a much larger percentage of household income.
New Jersey Board of Public Utilities President Joseph Fiordaliso announced earlier this year he would create an Office of Clean Energy Equity as proposed under the bill.