Environmental justice: Clean and green in every community

By Michele S. Byers

Growing up in Camden, Olivia Carpenter Glenn suffered from asthma and allergies. She wasn’t alone: many of her family members, friends and neighbors also had respiratory ailments, a result of breathing the polluted air in their industrial city.

Respiratory health issues were so common in Camden that Olivia gave them little thought until her freshman year at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

“That first fall, being around such fresh air, and just seeing the beauty of the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Green Mountains of Vermont, really made me start to ask a lot of questions,” she recalled. “Why is this beauty here and it’s not where I’m from? Why do I have persistent respiratory issues when I’m home, but when I’m here I don’t have them?”

That was the beginning of Olivia’s awareness of environmental justice, a major influence in her decision to major in environmental studies.

Environmental justice is defined as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people and communities – regardless of race, color, national origin or income – in the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. The environmental justice movement emerged in the 1980s and has been gaining momentum in recent years.

Now, Olivia is in a position to deliver environmental justice for communities like her hometown, places overburdened with pollution and polluters.

In July, Olivia was appointed deputy commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, in charge of advancing the state’s environmental justice and equity efforts in communities that are disproportionately impacted by pollution and are known to have dirtier air and more public health issues than other parts of New Jersey.

As of last week, this state we’re in has a powerful new tool: a historic environmental justice law aimed at ending the environmental health disparities between New Jersey’s urban, industrial and low-income areas, and its wealthier suburbs and rural communities.

On Sept. 18, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a new law that for the first time enables permitting agencies to consider “cumulative impacts” when reviewing applications to construct or operate. Prominent activists like Dr. Nicky Sheats, of the John S. Watson Institute for Public Policy, describe the ability to consider cumulative impacts as the “Holy Grail of the environmental justice movement.”

The bill would require certain applicants seeking permits from the Department of Environmental Protection to submit an environmental justice impact statement addressing the consequences their project would have on neighboring “overburdened communities.” The department would then gather public input and weigh the cumulative impacts of pollution on communities when deciding whether to grant permits for new or expanded facilities.

For example, if a community already has stressors like a landfill, sewage treatment plant, power generating plant or incinerator, these impacts would have to be taken into account. The bill also covers trash transfer stations, other solid waste facilities, large recycling facilities, and scrap metal facilities.

Overburdened communities are defined as those where 35% of the households qualify as low-income, or 40% of households are minority, or 40% of households have limited English proficiency. According to the state, there are approximately 310 municipalities, with populations totaling nearly 4.5 million residents, that have overburdened communities within their borders.

The new environmental justice law isn’t really new; it was introduced repeatedly since 2008, with Senator Troy Singleton as its main driving force and Assemblyman John McKeon sponsoring it in the Legislature’s lower house.

Olivia believes a “perfect storm” of circumstances led to the law’s passage after languishing for a dozen years. “One is the political will of the governor, who took the unprecedented stance of publicly stating his position on this piece of legislation before it was even passed,” she said. “The other piece is us being in the midst of this pandemic, which has really illuminated disparities for people in a very tangible way. When we look at the public health crisis, we can see that it impacts some communities more strongly than others.”

She also believes that growing public support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the George Floyd killing was a factor in getting the bill passed.

Now that the environmental justice law is on the books – the strictest such law in the nation – the Department of Environmental Protection must write rules to implement it.

Thanks to Gov. Murphy, Senator Singleton, Assemblyman McKeon, DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe, Olivia Glenn, the NJ Environmental Justice Alliance, Clean Water Action and scores of environmental justice advocates who have worked so hard to bring about this sorely needed change.

It’s only fair that officials reviewing applications for new facilities like incinerators and landfills should consider the community’s current environmental quality. For too long, decisions like these were made in a vacuum, as if the existing sources of pollution didn’t count.

“It does feel really good to be a part of something this historic, but what stays on the forefront of my mind is that it’s needful,” Olivia said. “When we think about the communities that we’re serving, who for a long time have been waiting for us to get to this point, they need this. I’m mindful of the work of wanting to make these changes happen – I’m happy, but I feel like I’ve got to push my sleeves up.”

In addition to the environmental justice law, New Jersey is also advancing new environmental justice guidance to executive agencies in New Jersey state government, under the direction of an executive order from Gov. Murphy.

For Olivia, the implications of New Jersey’s environmental justice leadership work go beyond the Garden State.

“We are taking bold steps on behalf of environmental justice communities nationwide,” she says. “We hope this empowers leaders and advocates everywhere to better protect some of our most vulnerable neighbors.”

For more information on the work of New Jersey’s Office of Environmental Justice, visit https://nj.gov/dep/ej/.

And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at info@njconservation.org