Governor Murphy, of New Jersey, signs legislation that provides environmental protections for communities who historically have been burdened by pollution and environmental injustice. Photo courtesy governor’s office.

By Ramona du Houx

September 19, 2020

New Jersey became the first state in the nation to require mandatory permit denials if an environmental justice analysis determines a new facility will have a disproportionately negative impact on an overburdened community. Governor Phil Murphy signed the legislation (S232) into law on September 18, 2020 after twelve years in the making.

“Today we are sending a clear message that we will longer allow Black and Brown communities in our state to be dumping grounds, where access to clean air and clean water are overlooked,” said Governor Murphy. “This action is a historic step to ensure that true community input and collaboration will factor into decisions that have a cumulative impact for years to come. I’m incredibly proud that New Jersey is now home to the strongest environmental justice law in the nation.”

The legislation, a priority of environmental justice advocates ever since it was introduced in 2008, would for the first time, require state environmental officials to consider the cumulative impacts of locating new power plants, manufacturing facilities, incinerators, or renewed air permits in communities already burdened with pollution from such plants.

Governor Murphy, of New Jersey, with supporters about to sign environmental protections for communities who historically have been burdened by pollution and environmental injustice. Photo courtesy governor’s office.

“The top indicator of whether a person lives in an area with toxicity in your air or water is the color of your skin. This is so wrong,’’ said U.S. Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from Newark, who is sponsoring environmental justice legislation in the U.S. Senate. “It is long past time that our environmental protections actually protect all of our citizens, especially those communities who have been historically burdened by pollution and environmental injustice.”

The law affects portions of 310 communities with populations of more than 4.4 million people. It applies to new projects as well as to facilities seeking renewal of air permits and other permits.

“For decades, residents living in overburdened communities have had their lives routinely and inconveniently interrupted by the toxic facilities located in their neighborhood. Now after years of having no say, these communities will finally have a voice in the siting of these industries,’’ said Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), the sponsor of the bill. “Their daily routines have been intertwined with industry smells, pollution smoke, and visits to the emergency room for asthma and other respiratory ailments. After years of waiting for action, this long overdue law will bring them the environmental justice that they deserve.”

The bill defines an overburdened community as any community where 35 percent of the households qualify as low-income according to the U.S. Census, 40 percent of households are minority, or 40 percent of households have limited English proficiency. There are approximately 310 municipalities with populations totaling approximately 4,489,000 that have overburdened communities within their municipalities.

“As a statewide and regional hub of industry, commerce, innovation and energy, the impact of the legacy of environmental contamination is real and present in New Jersey. This historic legislation is a model to show the rest of the Country how to ensure that communities are protected and how, by utilizing both activism and leadership simultaneously, you can truly change the status quo,” said Mayor Ras J. Baraka, City of Newark.

Murphy signed the bill at a park in Newark’s Ironbound section, a four-square-mile area that is home to three Superfund toxic waste sites, two power plants and a huge garbage incinerator.

“The law gives us hope. Hope that our pleas for the right to breathe will be heard next time we face off with polluters who have been targeting Black and Brown neighborhoods for decades,” said Maria Lopez-Nuñez, Deputy Director of Organizing and Advocacy at the Ironbound Community Corporation. “We don’t want to be the canaries in the coal mine anymore.’’

The bill requires the Department of Environmental Protection to evaluate the environmental and public health impacts of the following facilities on overburdened communities when reviewing the following permit applications:

  • Major sources of air pollution (i.e., gas fired power plants and cogeneration facilities);
  • Resource recovery facilities or incinerators; sludge processing facilities;
  • Sewage treatment plants with a capacity of more than 50 million gallons per day;
  • Transfer stations or solid waste facilities;
  • Recycling facilities that receive at least 100 tons of recyclable material per day;
  • Scrap metal facilities;
  • Landfills; or
  • Medical waste incinerators, except those attendants to hospitals and universities.

“Environmental Justice communities are well aware of how race and income relate to environmental burdens,” said Melissa Miles, Executive Director, NJ Environmental Justice Alliance. “Our legislators have answered our call to action and now we must keep the voices of overburdened communities centered in the rule-making process.”