By Jay Watson
Many New Jersey residents are lucky enough to live in places where they can breathe clean air and drink clean, healthy water.
But many others are not, especially those in low income and minority neighborhoods, which have more than their fair share of polluting industries like incinerators and power generating plants.
“If you live in New Jersey, the amount of pollution in your neighborhood is connected to race and income; the color of your skin, the amount of money in your pocket,” said Dr. Nicky Sheats, director of the Center for the Urban Environment at the John S. Watson Institute for Urban Policy and Research at Kean University, a member of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, and a longtime environmental justice leader.
The disproportionate amount of pollution in these neighborhoods, added Sheats, is almost certainly associated with disparities in health. That is, people of color and those living in poverty are more likely to suffer from health problems, including respiratory diseases.
Sheats is one of a group of New Jersey activists whose work led to the passage of the state’s groundbreaking 2020 Environmental Justice Law, which seeks to protect low income communities and communities of color from additional industrial pollution.
The law is the first in the nation requiring action to end disparities in the siting of polluting facilities. The law requires permitting agencies to consider, for the first time, “cumulative impacts” when reviewing applications to construct or operate facilities that pollute.
Currently, permitting regulations only look at the impacts of individual pollutants on health. They do not take into account what happens, for example, when people breathe in multiple air pollutants and airborne particulates from multiple facilities.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has drafted a set of rules and regulations to implement the environmental justice law and is holding a series of public hearings this summer at which the public can provide input.
Environmental justice advocates and their allies throughout this state we’re in – including the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, Ironbound Community Corp., South Ward Environmental Alliance and Clean Water Action – are working to make sure people living in overburdened communities understand the proposed rules and are engaged in the public hearing process.
A virtual meeting meeting is planned for 6 p.m. July 28. A link will be provided on the DEP website at www.nj.gov/dep/rules/notices.html
In addition to the virtual meeting, written comments are being accepted by the DEP.
Under the draft rules, applicants who want to build or operate certain facilities would be required to complete an environmental justice impact process, which includes assessing current and potential environmental stressors. They would also have to conduct public hearings and respond to public comments and questions.
The DEP would be required to deny a permit if the proposed facility would cause environmental stressors to be higher in overburdened communities, unless there is significant public interest within the community.
The proposed rules also require additional reviews of existing facilities in overburdened communities that are planning to expand or renovate; the DEP would be able to apply more stringent conditions on those facilities.
“The South Ward community of Newark just wants to breathe clean air and enjoy their quality of life free from additional toxic facilities impacting the health of the neighborhood,” said Kim Gaddy, environmental justice director of Clean Water Action.
“We are excited about reaching this pivotal moment in the trajectory of the EJ law. Environmental justice communities will be paying specific attention to what warrants a compelling public interest, what does it mean to avoid harming the community and provisions around community engagement,” said Maria Lopez-Nunez of the Ironbound Community Corp.
Sean Moriarty, deputy commissioner of the DEP, recently told a gathering of business leaders the environmental justice law and rules will help correct “historical injustice” and “a legacy of inequitable siting” of facilities that create pollution.
“It does require a commitment and deliberate action,” Moriarty said.
But what makes the implementation process easy, he said, is that “it draws on a common concept of fairness and human decency.”
New Jersey’s adoption of the environmental justice law and rules is being closely watched by other states and could ultimately serve as a model.
“New Jersey is the first state in the entire country to wrestle meaningfully with addressing the cumulative impacts of pollution that are disproportionately experienced by low income, Black, brown and indigenous communities,” DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette said.
Kudos to environmental justice groups for working to get the law passed two years ago and keeping communities engaged, and to the DEP for embracing the overarching principle of fairness.
Residents of overburdened communities are encouraged to speak out and share their experiences with the DEP to ensure the state ends up with a strong set of protections for those who have borne an unequal impact from pollution.
Jay Watson is a co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.