Bill Advances to Help Lower-Income Communities in NJ Block Projects that Could Increase Pollution

Tom Johnson | July 21, 2020 | Energy & Environment
Measure easily passes Assembly committee. Business interests warn of negative economic consequences
Credit: Adina Voicu from Pixabay
File photo. Some advocates view S-232 as the most significant step ever taken to address unhealthy levels of pollution affecting many poor and urban communities in the state.

Despite pushback from the business community, an Assembly committee cleared a bill Monday that would give minority and low-income communities more leverage in blocking new projects that could increase pollution burdens in areas already suffering from adverse environmental impacts.

The legislation (S-232), part of a two-bill package aimed at addressing environmental-justice issues impacting communities across New Jersey, is viewed by advocates as the most significant step ever taken to address unhealthy levels of pollution affecting many poor and urban communities in the state.

The bill, approved by the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee, would require state environmental officials to consider the cumulative impacts of locating new power plants or major new manufacturing facilities where residents already suffer from pollution from incinerators, hazardous waste sites, or waste transfer stations.

“We need protections,’’ said Marie Lopez-Nuñez, deputy director of the Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark, referring to a neighborhood with three power plans, a garbage incinerator, a massive sewage treatment plant, and a number of hazardous waste sites.

The legislation ‘’can stop a racist legacy of placing all the bad things in places where people of color live,’’ she said. “This bill is going to give us hope.’’

But opponents of the bill argued the measure is so expansive — affecting portions of more than 310 communities — that it could stifle economic growth in many of the same urban communities desperate for job opportunities for their residents. The result could be uncertainty that will delay many major infrastructure projects, according to construction and trade representatives.

“There is a large impact that everyone needs to understand by the implications of this bill,’’ said Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey, seeking to delay the bill. “Otherwise, we will regret it.’’

Ray Cantor, a vice president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, argued the bill, as drafted, will not do much to address the problems it aims to address, but will drive manufacturing out of the state. His concerns centered on the 237 facilities with air permits that would come up for renewal under the program.

The case for, the case against

“What we fear, on renewal (of those permits), the facility will be told to cut back hours, cut back operations and cut back emissions,’’ he said.

Others argued the problems associated with environmental-justice communities will not be ended with this bill — even if it is enacted. Paul Gilman, a senior vice president of Covanta, a company that operates garbage incinerators in Newark and Camden, said those facilities reflect only a small portion of the pollution burden in those communities.

“The problems won’t end with this first great step,’’ Gilman said.

Others thought differently. Nicky Sheats of the Environmental Justice Alliance argued the recent past has underscored how low-income communities are particularly affected by environmental-justice issues, citing the lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan of drinking water supplies and the recent coronavirus pandemic, where populations of color were more heavily impacted.

“How many times do we have to hear that lesson before we finally act?’’ Sheats asked.

The bill has powerful advocates pressing for its passage, including Gov. Phil Murphy, who endorsed the legislation last month, a position he rarely takes before a bill winds up on his desk..

On Monday, the Assembly committee began with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker saying why he is backing the bill in a Zoom session from a car, parked off the New Jersey Turnpike, on his way back to Washington D.C. The bill before the Legislature incorporates aspects of legislation Booker is sponsoring in Congress.

Meanwhile, without a lot less controversy, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee approved a bill, sponsored by Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), that would establish an Office of Clean Energy Equity in the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. Among other things, that bill would target at least $50 million a year from the state’s clean-energy program to fund projects in so-called overburdened communities.