Roundtable: The Urgency of Delivering Environmental Justice — and Clean Energy — in New Jersey

With the national focus on social justice, Sen. Cory Booker, community and environmental advocates and an energy executive discuss how to advance environmental justice

NJ Spotlight and NJTV News hosted a roundtable on how New Jersey’s clean-energy efforts can help tackle the pollution burdens many disadvantaged and lower-income communities face. Founding editor John Mooney and NJ Spotlight energy and environmental writer Tom Johnson moderated an hour-and-a-half-long discussion on the issue with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, environmental justice advocates, and a top executive at PSEG. Here are some excerpts of what they had to say, with some sections slightly edited for brevity:

Q (Mooney): Help us frame this discussion, especially at a time when we’re having this national reckoning around social justice issues. Talk a little bit about environmental justice and how it fits into that conversation.

Sen. Cory Booker: Well, I think you make an interesting point about the parallels to the protests — this idea of violence against black bodies or violence against vulnerable people in our country, that it’s just patently unjust.

We have a nation that has a horrific record of having environmentally toxic sites that disproportionately in a dramatic way affect people of color, disproportionately affect Indigenous Americans and disproportionately impact low-income Americans.

Here in New Jersey, we see that in staggering ways, whether it is air quality with people in places like Newark, for example, having four times the asthma rate of nearby suburbs, all the way to the proliferation of Superfund sites. In addition to that, we are a nation that just hasn’t prioritized this. And as a result, we see stunning data points, like, for example, there are about 3,000 jurisdictions in America where children have more than twice the blood lead levels of Flint, Michigan. And so, we have an urgency in this country that we don’t fully recognize.

Q (Mooney): Talk about a little bit about the politics on the national end of this, its prospects — it’s obviously a pretty divided Congress right now on a host of issues. Is this … its time?

Booker: Well, look, I always say that if I can’t take leaps, I’m going to take steps. But I think in the same way that we’re seeing this awakening around criminal justice issues in this country, we really need to understand that there is an intersectionality of these issues of justice.

We saw with the COVID crisis that there are health care disparities in our nation and really systematic challenges facing minorities that the systems need to change. Well, environmental justice has to begin to be more center in the consciousness of Americans, because of silent killers in our country — air quality, water quality and other toxins are ravaging communities that are already struggling with police violence or inadequate funding of schools and more.

It makes moral sense. It’s in alignment with our values. We just have to muster the collective will. But understanding that real public safety in America is far more expansive than just police issues. It means access to health care, it means clean water and clean air. It really means that we do everything to nurture a well-being in our country. And environmental justice has to be a part of it.

Q (Johnson): How do you think this whole debate over structural racism in the country has advanced the goals of the environmental justice movement?

Nicky Sheats, New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance and the Center for Urban Environment at the John S. Watson Institute for Public Policy at Thomas Edison University: Even before the protests, COVID had pointed out one of the things that we’ve been saying in environmental justice maybe for a while about community impacts, you know, the multiple pollutants that often burden EJ communities along with the social vulnerabilities that exist in low-income communities between communities of color.

So, these kinds of impacts, we’ve argued for a long time, make these communities vulnerable in many ways. And COVID just pointed that out, unfortunately, very nicely and I think immediately made environmental justice more relevant, because that’s one of our main themes.

And then I think with the protest around unjust police violence and the focus on race, it’s very easy to make a connection in environmental justice work, where the country not only devalues lives of  Black and brown and people of color through unnecessarily violent violence, unnecessary violence, but also by not addressing long-term pollution problems, including air pollution. That’s another way to devalue lives of people of color.

The fact we have multiple polluting facilities in communities of color is a reflection that those lives don’t seem to be as valuable as lives of other people. So, we’re hoping that this this brings an urgency in the country to racial justice issues, including environmental justice.

Q (Johnson): What kind of impact is this current movement going to have in terms of shifting the results and goals of the environmental community?

Rick Thigpen, senior vice president at PSEG and a trustee of NJTV: I think what’s going on around us is quite important and it’s liable to have some very significant long-term consequences. What Nicky has alluded to and I think Senator Booker talked about is the concept of equity and along with the concept of equity is what we have discovered is the disproportionate burdens that communities of color as well as low-income communities have borne in terms of bearing the burden of industrialization and bearing the burdens of pollution. And that dialogue is all coming home to roost for us to talk about how to be more equitable.

Certainly, at Public Service, you know, not only are we engaged with the big picture of climate change, but the issue of environmental justice is something that’s on our minds now every day in terms of how we do our business. And this was not always true. And this will be on our minds even more, the issue of equity going forward as people’s expectations of being more equitable increase. And how do we distribute burdens fairly? How do we provide the service that we’re charged to do fairly while paying attention to the burdens on different communities?

Q (Johnson): OK, María, do you sense a real change is in the air and are you more optimistic that actual real achievements, like the bill passed yesterday (June 29) by the state Senate on cumulative impacts, is just a start?

María Lopez-Nuñez: deputy director, organizing and advocacy,  Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark: I love the bill, I think it’s necessary. It’s so overdue.

And, just to give people context who are watching: the bill, it’s just the power to say “no.” And one thing our communities have learned time and time again is the whole structure needs to be done. Right? Right now, we have private corporations who really write our energy laws.

You know, we don’t want to leave any community behind. We want to be wholesome in the way we shift society. So, while this bill is a huge step forward that is absolutely necessary, I want us to capture this moment to turn equity into not just a phase. And that’s what we’re hoping to see in this moment, a complete waking up.

Ana Isabel Baptista, director of the Tishman Environment and Design Center at the New School: You know, the state of New Jersey has no less than four or five executive orders on environmental justice and dozens of environmental justice policy statements. And yet, when you come to the city of Newark or the city of Camden and you propose another polluting facility or another power plant, the power of the community to say “no,” or to say at least look at the mitigation of cumulative burden, the state of New Jersey steps back and says, you know, we can’t do anything.

All we can do is tell you there’s a problem, that there’s a disproportionate impact on your community, but we can’t actually do anything differently. And so, again, I am hopeful that the rhetoric around Black Lives Matter and environmental justice and equity turns into tangible outcomes because the outcomes ultimately are what matter to communities that are experiencing racial violence in a variety of ways through pollution.

Clean-energy agenda

There was extensive debate about two key elements of the Murphy administration’s clean-energy agenda — improving the state’s energy efficiency programs and electrifying the transportation sector. Here’s what panelists had to say about those topics:

Sheats: You talked about energy efficiency, renewable energy and clean air. We need to have strategies that deliver pollution reductions specifically to those neighborhoods. We need to do energy efficiency and renewable energy in EJ communities. But that’s not enough to reduce air pollution in those communities. We have to couple that with specific strategies that will reduce air pollution in those communities.

Baptista: Even when they are targeted, even when there are specific carve-outs for LMI (low- to middle-income) communities, we’ve seen a very poor track record nationally of delivering energy efficiency and renewable energy to the communities that need it the most. So it’s really important that we look at bills like (Sen.) Troy Singleton’s clean-energy equity bill and start to really carve out significant portions of funding that direct money and require the state to track and assess the effectiveness of energy efficiency programs that deliver those benefits to the communities that need it most.

Thigpen: If it was easy, anybody could do it. This is not going to be easy … This is something that requires expertise, capital behind it and public policy commitment to accomplish it. And the reason to do it is that it’s absolutely necessary to be done for the benefit of the people in the communities and the benefit of our climate as a whole. So the challenges are substantial.

But there’s no question to be comprehensive and productive about doing it, old structures have to be taken a look at. There are problems with lead in buildings … There are problems with structures.

This is a public policy priority that requires resources, organization and expertise. We are also fully aware of the responsibility to use less energy, if we’re going to fight climate change. So, this is one of the problems that has to be tackled and it’s got to be tackled collectively. And you can create jobs and create business opportunity doing it at the same time. And it really does involve the government in several places.

If I don’t own a house, why am I going to take my money and put it into fixing the house up so it’s more energy efficient? It’s not going to happen. So, these things require partnership and we need to work together to do it. And it starts with we have to do it. We have to understand how important it is to be done. The word we started with, equity, requires it to be done.

Lopez-Nuñez: This is about structural reform. And even the way we go about doing things, our communities are often not asked what we would like to see energy efficiency look like. I would like to see us ask them from the beginning.

And you hear the debates about is it more important to have a clean economy or jobs? Well, I think it’s possible to do both and use energy efficiency to create jobs, to create job training opportunities in cities. And to implement public policies where just because your income level may not be as high as others, you still have access to energy efficiency services.

Baptista: We need to electrify, you know, passenger vehicles. But from an environmental justice perspective, what’s more critical is that we deal with the parts of the transportation sector that are not only contributing to climate change, but are having immediate health-harming impacts on communities of color and low-income communities in some of the most densely populated portions of the state, like Newark.