Landmark Bill To Protect Poor Communities From Pollution Just Passed N.J. Legislature

New Jersey lawmakers have passed major new environmental protections for low-income communities.

On Thursday, both houses of the state Legislature passed a bill (S232/A2212) that seeks to promote environmental justice by ensuring that low-income communities of color are not burdened with unfair shares of pollution.

The measure requires the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to consider how projects seeking state permits for facilities such as power plants, incinerators and landfills would affect environmental and public health in already overburdened communities.

It requires the DEP to produce a list of “overburdened communities” in the state, which would be defined as census block groups in which at least 35% of the households qualify as low-income, at least 40% of residents identify as minority or as members of a State-recognized tribal community, or at least 40% of the households have limited English proficiency.

Gov. Phil Murphy previously said more than 300 of the state’s 565 municipalities have at least one community that qualifies.

State Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, said the bill was a critical and long-overdue measure for protecting the health of the Garden State’s marginalized communities.

“It is indisputable that poor, urban and minority residents have been unfairly overburdened with toxic facilities,” said Singleton, who was one of the bill’s primary sponsors. “Everyone — regardless of their zip code, income or race — should have the right to breathe fresh air, to drink clean water and live free of toxicity. No one community should shoulder a greater environmental burden than environmental benefit. At least, not anymore.”

Facilities affected by the bill include:

  • Power plants that generate 10 megawatts or more of electricity
  • Incinerators
  • Sewage treatment plants with a capacity of more than 50 million gallons per day
  • Solid waste facilities
  • Landfills
  • Anything defined as a major source of air pollution under the federal Clean Air Act

The state Assembly passed the Democrat-sponsored bill with a 49-28-1 vote. The Senate, which had cleared an earlier version of the bill in June, passed the measure in a 21-14 vote about an hour later.

Assembleyman John McKeon, D-Essex, another sponsor of the bill, said he was “tremendously proud” that the measure had passed. He added that he hopes state lawmakers will build on this momentum and work to address inequities in other parts of Garden State society.

“I think that we’re going to continue to be at the forefront and make progress,” McKeon said.

The bill now heads to Murphy, who pledged his support for the measure in June. The Murphy administration has recently placed a focus on environmental justice, including the appointment of a new deputy commissioner at DEP, the recent pushback against an EPA incinerator study in Rahway and the filing of a dozen new pollution lawsuits on Thursday.

Advocates for the bill praise the new measures as strong protections for environmental justice.

“This bill gives the state the power to ‘just say no more’ pollution in my neighborhood,” said Kim Gaddy, a Newark resident and environmental justice organizer for Clean Water Action. “My children can look forward to breathing cleaner air as they recreate in Weequahic Park.”

Gaddy pointed out that versions of the bill have been around since 2008, and that this has been a long process for activists like herself.

“Environmental justice communities like mine have suffered far too long and now after 10 years, our voices have been heard and our communities will receive the right environmental protection for our complexion,” Gaddy said.

Melissa Miles, the executive director of the NJ Environmental Justice Alliance, said the nation’s reckoning with systemic racism in recent months has set the stage for this bill to finally pass.

“Passing this bill is a critical step towards ensuring that all residents of New Jersey, regardless of their zip code and color of their skin, have the right to good health, clean air, and safe waters,” Miles said. “This is the moment of reckoning for racial and environmental justice in our country that makes it imperative to act.”

Critics of the bill had previously warned that it will dissuade manufacturers and other companies from investing in New Jersey.

“We are disappointed that the Legislature passed a bill that will make New Jersey even less competitive in growing or keeping manufacturing jobs,” said Ray Cantor, the vice president of government affairs for the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. “This bill will do little, if anything, to protect the environment but it may do a lot to kill good-paying jobs.”

Cantor had previously argued that the state would better serve overburdened communities by cleaning and redeveloping abandoned lots, and working towards reducing emissions from ports.

The bill was amended by the Assembly’s appropriations committee on Monday with technical language to clarify that the new rules will not force a facility to cease operations during the permit renewal process.

Singleton disputed the notion that the bill would be bad for business in New Jersey.

“The environmental impacts legislation passed today will support, not undermine, sorely needed opportunities for growth and development in our overburdened communities, while ensuring a greater commitment to public health,” Singleton said.

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