Two months ago, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a new law that gives hundreds of communities a lot more say in blocking projects that add to the pollution burden for residents. The legislation (S-232) requires the state Department of Environmental Protection to evaluate the environmental and public health impacts on vulnerable communities when reviewing permit applications for certain new facilities such as gas-fired power plants, incinerators, sewage plants, landfills and others. It’s touted as the strongest law of its kind in the nation.
NJ Spotlight News on Nov. 17 held an online roundtable titled New Jersey’s Landmark Environmental Justice Law: How Will It Work?, the second in a series of roundtables focusing on the law and its implementation. In a wide-ranging debate, moderated by NJ Spotlight News Energy & Environment writer Tom Johnson, environmental justice advocates, business lobbyists and a state DEP executive talked about the need for the law and what challenges they face in implementing the program. The event also featured remarks from Gov. Phil Murphy and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker.
The following are edited excerpts from that discussion:
Why the law is needed
Gov. Phil Murphy: “It’s a historic step in ensuring full community input, participation and collaboration into decisions whose impact can last for years, if not decades. And in many communities across our state where this input was never collected or simply not heeded or ignored, those impacts have been hurtful. This is the legacy we are committed to reversing.”
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, Member U.S. Senate Committees on Foreign Relations, the Judiciary, Small Business and Entrepreneurship, and Environment and Public Works:
“New Jersey has said overburdened environmentally justice communities bear a disproportionate impact, and they deserve protection. I’ve seen it with my own state that this indeed is the important work we have.
“This legislation and ultimately its implementation must do what it set out to do — protect overburdened communities, give environmental justice communities a fair shot at breathing clean air and having clean drinking water, and address the long history of environmental justice.”
Maria Lopez-Nuñez, Deputy Director, Organizing and Advocacy, Ironbound Community Corporation:
“I am excited to talk about the nitty-gritty, right, because what we’re seeking to do here is fighting racism and classism in this state. Otherwise, this law wouldn’t have the necessity to exist.”
How the law will reduce pollution burdens
Shawn LaTourette, Deputy Commissioner & Chief of Staff, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection:
“But how can this law reduce cumulative environmental burdens from a really simple proposition that we look at? Then we start by looking at the problem. We start by looking at the truth, which is that our environmental laws, as they exist, do not look at the very finite condition of a host community. The laws just don’t do that. This law will and will ask how much is too much.”
Melissa Miles, Executive Director, New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance:
“So as it was, you know, when a new facility wants to come into the community, we are fighting these facilities one at a time. And what we hear is, well, we can’t say no. What we heard from our DEP, we can’t say no because they can’t say no because they will only pollute up to the allowable amount. And we say, but wait, we’re also living with X, Y and Z, and there was nothing they could do about that. A law like this is a major tool for us because for the first time, we are not alone in saying let’s consider the full impact, not just this facility.”
Raymond Cantor, Vice President, Government Affairs, New Jersey Business & Industry Association:
“While we support this legislation, the business community does have a couple of major concerns. One, it’s overly broad. While we typically talk about neighborhoods and communities, this bill, as it divides over the communities, who define it in a way that all or parts of 300 municipalities, including 4.5 million people are included in this bill.
“So it’s very broad — and being so broad as to how it’s going to be implemented. The process alone, if this bill is not implemented in the right way by the DEP, could kill off certain businesses right away.”
Miles: “It’s interesting how we talk about the advantages to the poorest communities. What advantages economically have the people of Newark, places like Camden, Rahway and Trenton seen from the burdens of industry in their communities? To date, people are getting rich, but it’s not the people living there.”
LaTourette: “This law asks us to zoom out and take a look at the broader picture, because we don’t look at it holistically, and this fills that gap. But the law also doesn’t ask or put upon the shoulders of any industry or any one facility to correct the issues over which they had no control.
“It only asks them to look at that issue, at those issues and to examine whether they would add to those issues by virtue of the additional pollution it might bring.”
Lopez-Nuñez: “I’m dedicated to getting this right because the whole country is watching. This is not just about New Jersey. This about justice for Black, brown, indigenous folks, for low-income folks in Appalachia, like everybody elsewhere.”
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, Member U.S. Senate Committees on Foreign Relations, the Judiciary, Small Business and Entrepreneurship, and Environment and Public Works
Raymond Cantor, Vice President, Government Affairs, New Jersey Business & Industry Association (NJBIA)
Shawn M. LaTourette, Deputy Commissioner & Chief of Staff, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection
Melissa Miles, Executive Director, New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance (NJEJA)
Maria Lopez-Nuñez, Deputy Director, Organizing and Advocacy, Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC)
Tom Johnson, NJ Spotlight News Energy & Environment Writer