Murphy Backs Plan To Protect N.J. Low-Income Communities From More Pollution

As the nation celebrates Juneteenth, the day commemorating when slavery finally ended in America, Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday announced he’s throwing his support behind a long-stalled proposal to strengthen environmental protections for low-income communities with large minority populations in New Jersey.

The bill would require the state Department of Environmental Protection to consider how projects seeking permits would would affect the environment and public health of these communities.

Murphy, a progressive Democrat who is white, said it would be “the strongest law of its nature in America.”

“For years, proud residents of countless cities have been afterthoughts to development that did not enrich them and in fact hurt them,” the governor, flanked by environmental justice advocates, said during a news conference in Trenton.

“No community in our state deserves to be a dumping ground for projects which we know will only compound decades of prior health and economic disparities,” Murphy added.

Versions of the Democratic-sponsored measure (S232/A2212) have been around since 2008. But Murphy and sponsors say the recent nationwide conversation about systematic racism in the U.S. has provided momentum for environmental justice proposals like this.

“This is our moment in history — to turn a moment into a movement. To create a more fair and just society,” said state Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, a main sponsor, who is Black. “This moment placed this issue at the forefront.”

The measure would require the DEP to produce a list of “overburdened communities” in the state, which would be defined as communities in which at least one half of the households qualify as low-income, and either at least 40% of residents identify as Black, African American, Hispanic or Latino, or as members of a State-recognized tribal community, or at least 40% of the households have limited English proficiency.

Murphy said more than 300 of the state’s 565 municipalities have at least one community that qualifies. That’s about 4.5 million residents, or about half the state’s population, he said.

The bill then places new requirements, including public health impact reports and increased public hearings, for the DEP to consider when deciding if permits should be granted for a new polluting facility to be built, or for an existing facility to be expanded. The DEP would have the ability to reject any such proposals that it deems would create a disproportionate impact on the overburdened community.

Facilities that would be affected 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 handling a monthly volume in excess of 25 tons
  • Landfills
  • Anything defined as a major source of air pollution under the federal Clean Air Act

Even with Murphy’s support, the environmental measure still needs to pass both houses of the Democratic-controlled state Legislature. The bill is currently in the state Senate budget committee, after being passed out of the state Senate environment and energy committee in February. No version of the bill has made it past this point.

“In many ways, this has been the holy grail for the environmental justice movement,” said Nicky Sheats of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, one of the environmental groups that has long pushed for this proposal. “This will help protect low-income communities and communities of color in New Jersey. It will improve the health of residents in these communities. ... This is a good day for New Jersey.”

Ana Baptista of the Ironbound Community Corporation agreed.

“Growing up in the Ironbound community (of Newark), generations of people dreamed about the day that they would no longer be asked to bear the burden of all the pollution, all the bad smells, all the brownfield sites,” Baptista said. “And for the first time in decades, there’s an opportunity to say no.”

Low-income communities across New Jersey have long faced an unfair share of pollution to their air, water, and land.

Take ozone pollution — or smog. In the Garden State, urban areas near New York City and Philadelphia are given failing grades by the American Lung Association for the amount of smog in the air.

About 1 million New Jerseyans suffer from either asthma or COPD. So when they breathe in smog, which has been described as “sunburn for the lungs,” that are at higher risk of a health episode that could lead to hospitalization.

In places like Newark, where one in four kids has asthma, the problems are more pronounced. The the coronavirus pandemic is further highlighting the issue — Black and brown communities are being hit by the disease at a disproportionate rate, and a Harvard study earlier this year found that areas which have historically struggled with air pollution have higher death rates from COVID-19. Climate change is expected to make things worse.

Incinerators have been at the heart of environmental justice conversations in New Jersey in recent years. Covanta, a Morristown-based company that operates incinerators in Newark, Rahway and Camden and dozens of other cities across the country, has frequently found its Newark facility serve as a target for environmental activists.

Every day, the Newark facility burns 2,800 tons of waste from around Essex County and New York City, generating enough power for 45,000 homes. The incinerator, located in the city’s Ironbound neighborhood, is one of the largest single-sources of air pollution in Essex County.

Covanta has maintained to NJ Advance Media and other news outlets that while its incinerators produce more emissions than other industrial facilities on a one-on-one level, the incinerator pollution is dwarfed by the total amount of air pollution produced by vehicle traffic.

Recent incidents of purple smoke at the Newark incinerator — something that only happens when iodine is burned, which is not allowed — have brought attention to the facility. In April, Covanta reported to the DEP that it had tracked down the source of the iodine-laden waste and stopped accepting that material.

In Camden, a proposal for a microgrid powered by Covanta’s incinerator in the city would make Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority wastewater plant and other critical facilities in the city more resilient in future emergencies.

But local environmental activists worry that the plan will expand operations for the polluting incinerator, according to TAPInto Camden. Earlier this year, a petition was launched to “demand Camden City does not move forward with any plans which extend the life of this dirty trash incinerator.”

Vehicle traffic is the largest source of air pollution in New Jersey. The Murphy administration has taken steps to replace old, dirty diesel engines and get more New Jerseyans driving electric cars in an attempt to deal with this problem.

In April, the state announced that it would commit new revenue from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) to help reduce vehicle pollution. The DEP is continuing to distribute settlement money it got from suing Volkswagen over the German-carmaker’s emissions scandal to replace outdated diesel engines.

And in January, Murphy signed a new law that offers up to $5,000 in incentives for New Jerseyans who buy an electric car.

But last week, Murphy gave final approval for a plan to expand sections of the Turnpike, Parkway and Atlantic City Expressway. Environmental groups have slammed the expansion as an invitation to put more cars on the road, threatening to worsen tailpipe emissions.

Murphy was asked Friday how the widening plans dovetail the push for environmental justice. The governor said the plans are needed in the southern part of the Turnpike. They “will be a game-changer,” he said.

“We can’t ignore the fact that we are the densest state in the nation, that we’re a corridor state,” he said, adding that the state has placed an “enormous amount of focus” on increasing electric vehicle use.

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