With little debate, lawmakers gave final legislative approval on Thursday to a bill to help low-income and minority communities block new projects that could increase pollution within those areas.
The legislation, sought for by the environmental-justice community for more than a decade, is viewed by advocates as one of the strongest measures in the country to give local communities the ability to fight new power plants, incinerators, and manufacturing facilities within their borders.
Gov. Phil Murphy pushed for the legislation this spring, and is likely to sign it. But the business community called the bill flawed, saying it could drive investment in manufacturing to other states and stifle economic growth in urban areas where it is most needed.
Proponents argued that the bill affords those communities a new sense of hope. “Hope that our right to breathe will be heard next time we face off with polluters who have been targeting brown and Black neighborhoods for decades,’’ said Maria Lopez-Nunez, deputy director of the Ironbound Community Corp. in Newark’s Ironbound section.
Within four square miles, that neighborhood is home to three federal Superfund toxic waste sites, two power plants, and one garbage incinerator, according to Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), a sponsor of the bill.
“The concentration of energy, water, and waste management infrastructure near urban cities has been a longstanding issue; one that has left neighboring communities disproportionately impacted and exposed to pollutants to an unimaginable detriment,’’ McKeon said.
Defining overburdened communities
But at least one legislator questioned how effective it would be — based on the bill’s definition of so-called overburdened communities. The bill, using local census blocks, defined them as those with a certain percentage of households qualifying as low-income, minority, or with limited English proficiency.
“This bill has almost nothing to do with environmental justice,’’ argued Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Morris), who said the bill fails to mention anything to do with the environment. Instead, it is based on income levels, race and ability to speak English, he said.
The definition of overburdened communities, Bergen said, is not based on any environmental impact nor health risk in those neighborhoods. Despite his protests, the bill passed 48-28 in the Assembly, and in the Senate 21-14 with no debate.
If signed by Murphy, the bill would require state environmental officials, for the first time, to consider the cumulative impacts of locating new power plants, new manufacturing plants, or even renewed air pollution permits in communities already burdened with pollution from such facilities.
Limiting economic and job growth
Critics argued the bill is so expansive — affecting more than 300 communities and up to 4 million people — that it could stifle economic growth and limit job opportunities in those locations.
Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), the sponsor of the bill (S-232), disagreed.
“For decades, generations of New Jerseyans have suffered adverse health effects due to the overabundant siting of polluting facilities in their neighborhoods,’’ he said in a statement. “Their daily routines have been intertwined with the unpleasant smells of industry, unsightly smoke from pollution, and untimely visits to the doctor and emergency room for asthma and other respiratory ailments.’’
Meanwhile, the New Jersey attorney general’s office and state Department of Environmental Protection filed law enforcement actions targeting polluters in environmental-justice communities, mostly against small businesses for problems with underground storage tanks, leakage of dry-cleaning chemicals, and gasoline contamination.
The targeted companies occurred in environmental-justice communities including Newark, Orange, South Orange, Paterson, Jersey City, Elizabeth, Hillside, Fairton, and Upper Deerfield Township.