Tool to Curb Pollution in Environmental-Justice Communities Fails to Get Votes

Tom Johnson | July 31, 2020 | Energy & Environment
Gov. Phil Murphy pressed lawmakers to act but they backed off amid growing pushback
Credit: barbourians via Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0
There was a last-minute lobbying blitz against the bill by business interests and labor groups.

In an unexpected setback, lawmakers yesterday failed to act on a bill touted by Gov. Phil Murphy as key to helping to curb pollution problems in environmental-justice communities.

The legislation (S-232) is viewed by advocates as establishing a national model for giving minority and low-income communities more tools to block new projects that could worsen air and other pollution in their neighborhoods.

But a last-minute lobbying blitz against the bill by business interests and labor groups led the Assembly to hold off voting planned for Thursday. The bill had been expected to pass and then be approved by the Senate and sent on to Murphy for his consideration.

Big thumbs-up from Murphy

Murphy heartily endorsed the bill last month at a news conference, one of the rare occasions when he backed a measure still pending in the Legislature. The governor has made environmental justice a priority during his term, backing up his pledge by committing more funds to so-called overburdened communities to reduce pollution there.

Kim Gaddy, a Newark native and member of Clean Water Action, said she was disappointed Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) did not post the bill for a vote, saying advocates were confident they had the 41 votes to send it on to the Senate.

“It would have been a great opportunity to demonstrate Black lives and people of color lives matter,’’ said Gaddy, noting it would have occurred on the day when civil rights icon John Lewis was buried.

The bill, long sought by environmental justice advocates, would require the state Department of Environmental Protection to consider the cumulative impacts of locating new power plants or major manufacturing facilities where residents already suffer from pollution from incinerators, hazardous-waste sites, or large factories.

Butting heads with business

The bill’s broad sweep, affecting portions of more than 300 communities, raised concerns from business lobbyists and union officials that it could hamstring growth in many of the urban communities desperate to create new job opportunities for their residents.

“We’re glad the bill was held today,’’ said Ray Cantor, a vice president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. “The bill was well-intentioned, but too broad with too much uncertainty.’’

Labor officials, who got involved in the issue late, are worried that if projects are delayed, it could drive down employment among their members.

A top concern revolved around facilities with so-called Title V air permits, which expire every five years. Critics say the new provisions create uncertainty whether existing plants will be able to renew their permits, a level of uncertainty that will discourage companies from making new investments in New Jersey.

“We look forward to coming up with a workable environmental-justice program that we can support,’’ said Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey.

While many lawmakers questioned why the bill was moving so quickly, even those who oppose the measure acknowledge the setback may only be temporary — given the strong backing from environmental-justice advocates and the Murphy administration.

The legislation is part of a two-bill package sponsored by Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington). The other bill, also endorsed by the Murphy administration, would create a new Office of Clean Energy Equity. Among other things, it would ensure a greater percentage of funds from the Clean Energy Program are directed to environmental-justice communities.