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Delivering environmental justice to help communities breathe easier

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by Jay Watson, Co-Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

New Jersey is known as the Garden State, but not all communities are filled with trees, flowers and fresh breezes.

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Many of the state’s urban areas host facilities like power plants, trash and medical waste incinerators, landfills, and recycling and scrap metal processors that emit pollutants into the air. Constant truck traffic adds diesel and gasoline fumes to the mix.

Residents living in the vicinity of polluting facilities literally cannot take a breath of fresh air some days. And their repeated exposure to polluted air can cause elevated rates of asthma and other health problems, including heart disease.

Residents in these “overburdened” communities – often low-income households and people of color – may finally be able to breathe easier.

Two and a half years after Gov. Phil Murphy signed a landmark environmental justice (EJ) law aimed at reducing pollution in overburdened communities, a set of regulations to put the law into effect has finally been adopted. Announced during Earth Week, the new rules allow the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to begin enforcing the 2020 law.

New Jersey’s EJ law is considered the strongest in the nation. It requires state agencies to consider the cumulative effects of pollution – not just the impacts of any single facility – when deciding whether to permit new or expanded facilities that pollute.

The adoption of EJ rules is the culmination of a decade of efforts by environmental justice advocates to bring greater fairness and equity to the permitting process.

“These regulations and the law they will implement are an important step in addressing environmental justice and the disproportionate and harmful pollution that plagues communities of color and communities with low-income in our state,” said Dr. Nicky Sheats, Ph.D., director for the Center for the Urban Environment at the John S. Watson Institute for Urban Policy and Research at Kean University.

The EJ regulations cover eight types of facilities: major air pollution sources like gas-fired power plants and cogeneration plants; incinerators and resource recovery facilities, including sludge processing plants; large sewage treatment plants; transfer stations and solid waste facilities; large recycling facilities; scrap metal facilities; landfills; and medical waste incinerators not attendant to hospitals and universities.

Under the new rules, applicants proposing to locate these types of facilities in overburdened communities must prepare an environmental justice impact statement and engage directly with members of the community at a public hearing. The applicant must collect public comments and respond to them in writing.

The DEP will then evaluate whether pollution from the proposed facility would contribute to environmental and public health stressors at disproportionate levels compared to other New Jersey communities. Applicants are required to avoid and minimize stressors, including through the use of pollution control technology. Where disproportionate impacts are not avoidable, certain new facilities could be limited, or existing facilities could be subject to additional permit conditions.

While the new regulations are a major victory for the communities most affected by polluting facilities, environmental justice advocates say more must be done to fully address inequities in access to clean air, clean water and clean soil.

“We recognize this law is not a silver bullet – but it was never intended to be,” explained Sheats. “We’ve still got a lot of work in front of us. It’s going to take a suite of laws, policies and regulations to make the significant impact that we want to make.”

Although there’s nothing in the EJ law limiting it to air pollution, it will likely have the biggest impact on facilities that threaten public health by sending particulate matter – soot, dust, smoke and droplets of liquid – into the air.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breathing in particle pollution can be harmful to health. Coarse (bigger) particles – such as dust from roads, farms and construction sites – can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. Fine (smaller) particles are more dangerous to public health because they can get into the deep parts of lungs, or even into the bloodstream. Exposure to fine particles can harm both the lungs and heart.

Sheats noted that a 2013 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study estimated that fine particulate matter causes 200,000 premature deaths per year in the United States.

Now that the new EJ regulations are on the books, advocates will be pushing for additional protections for overburdened communities, such as using climate change mitigation policies to reduce greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Sheats said the EJ community would like to see existing power plants in overburdened communities – not just those seeking permits to expand – forced to reduce their emissions.

Sheats also cited a need for more regulations to control “indirect sources” of pollution, such as businesses like warehouses and ports that create significant truck traffic.

Kudos to the many organizations and individuals across New Jersey who successfully pushed for an environmental justice law and strong regulations to enforce it. Thanks also to Gov. Murphy and the legislators who supported it – especially primary sponsors state Sen. Troy Singleton (D-7) and Assemblyman John McKeon (D-27) – and to the DEP for its thoughtful, inclusive rulemaking process.

New Jersey may have set an example for the entire nation to emulate. On April 19, President Joe Biden issued an executive order to make environmental justice a central mission of federal agencies.

“Under this order, environmental justice will become the responsibility of every single federal agency – I mean, every single federal agency,” said Biden. “Every federal agency must take into account environmental health impacts on communities and work to prevent those negative impacts.” The executive order will create a new Office of Environmental Justice inside the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

For more information on New Jersey’s environmental justice law and rules, including an interactive map showing the locations of overburdened communities, go to https://dep.nj.gov/ej/.

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

 

 

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