New Jersey will soon enact stringent environmental justice legislation that will allow the state to reject permits for projects that could have a detrimental impact on already “overburdened” communities.
Under the bill signed into law Sept. 18 by Gov. Phil Murphy, New Jersey became the first state in the country to require mandatory permit denials if an analysis determines a new facility will have a disproportionately negative effect on communities where nearly half of households are defined low income or minority.
“This action is a historic step to ensure that true community input and collaboration will factor into the decisions that have a cumulative impact for years to come,” Murphy said. “I’m incredibly proud that New Jersey is now home to the strongest environmental justice law in the nation.”
What Will Be Subject To Review?
The legislation, he said, sends “a clear message that we will no longer allow Black and Brown communities in our state to be dumping grounds, where access to clean air and clean water are overlooked.”
Starting in March 2021, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will be required to evaluate environmental and public health impacts of facilities in overburdened communities while reviewing permit applications.
If a project poses “an unreasonable risk to the health of the residents and to the environment,” the DEP will be able to deny the application.
The law applies to proposals for projects ranging from: new or expanded power plants, recycling facilities, incinerators, sludge operations, landfills, sewage treatment plants, scrap metal facilities, transfer stations, solid waste facilities and medical waste incinerators.
DEP Commissioner Catherine R. McCabe said officials believe it is “not just a landmark advancement for environmental protection in New Jersey, but a roadmap for environmental justice nationally.”
“It improves protections for some of our most vulnerable New Jerseyans and empowers the DEP to evaluate a facility’s specific impact on its neighboring communities,” she said.
An “overburdened” community, according to the law, is any community where 35% of households qualify as low income, 40% are minority or 40% have limited English proficiency.
In New Jersey, there are 310 municipalities with populations totaling 4.4 million residents that have overburdened communities within their boundaries.
Those communities have grappled for decades with the effects of having energy, water and waste management infrastructure nearby, supporters of the bill said.
Assemblyman John F. McKeon (D-27), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said the only solution is “an overhaul of the way infrastructure gets approved and built, and systemic reform that puts people and communities directly at the heart of decision-making is what New Jersey needs.”
Assemblywoman and bill sponsor Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37), the bill’s co-sponsor, said the new law seeks to give a voice to those “who stand to be impacted the most.”
“Families living in urban neighborhoods have for too long disproportionately faced the negative effects of pollution, scores of children in these communities being diagnosed with asthma and put at greater risk of experiencing chronic health issues throughout their lifetimes,” she said.
“We cannot allow a legacy where your health is dependent on your zip code to persist,” Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D-34) added.
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37), who sponsored a companion bill, said “for decades” New Jersey’s poor and minority residents in urban areas have faced “significant, multi-generational and chronic health problems” due to pollution exposure. Those issues, she said, “just don’t exist in wealthier, less polluted communities.”
The legislation’s approval was applauded by environmental and social justice advocates, who believe the measure was long overdue.
Voices Finally Heard
Kim Gaddy, a Newark resident and representative of Clean Water Action, said, “Environmental justice communities like mine have suffered far too long. After more than 10 years of fighting for this legislation, our voices have finally been heard. Our communities will receive the right environmental protection for our complexion.”
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker said, “It is long past time that our environmental protections actually protect all of our citizens, especially those who have been historically burdened by pollution and environmental injustice.”
Evaluating the impacts, Booker said, will lead to “better, more thoughtful and inclusive decisions.”