Gov. Phil Murphy rarely weighs in about legislation before it reaches his desk, but he chose to make an unusual public endorsement of a long-stalled environmental justice bill.
TRENTON — Gov. Phil Murphy celebrated Juneteenth Day on Friday by endorsing environmental justice legislation that would require state regulators to consider the environmental and health impacts on overburdened low-income and minority communities before approving permits for industrial facilities.
Murphy rarely weighs in on legislation before it reaches his desk, but he chose to make an unusual public endorsement of a long-stalled environmental justice bill.
“No community in the state deserves to be a dumping ground for projects we know will only compound decades of prior health and economic disparities,” Murphy said during a news conference and event at Trenton’s Amtico Square, a now vacant area that was once the site of rubber factories and other industries.
The legislation Murphy is supporting is being spearheaded by Sen. Troy Singleton, D-7 of Delran, and would require the state Department of Environmental Protection to consider impacts on so-called overburdened communities nearby before approving required permits for industrial facilities, such as incinerators, power plants, sludge processors, waste treatment plants and recycling facilities.
The bill defines overburdened communities as those where at least 35% of the households qualify as low-income, 40% are minority, or 40% of households have limited English proficiency.
Nicky Sheats, a founding member of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, called the bill the “holy grail of the environmental justice movement.”
“This legislation will help protect low-income communities and communities of color in New Jersey. It will improve the health of residents in these communities. And make no mistake about it, we desperately needed this type of legislation to protect these communities. This is a good day for NJ.”
The bill has been pushed by advocates like Sheats for close to a decade but has never reached the governor’s desk for consideration, despite the backing of lawmakers like Singleton, who leads the Senate’s Community and Urban Affairs Committee.
“It is fitting we’re here today on Juneteenth,” Singleton said Friday. “The story of Juneteenth is about freedom but freedom delayed.”
He said the legislation was an attempt to find “fairness” for communities that have suffered the impacts of pollution because so many industrial facilities were permitted to be developed near them.
“We are not going to abolish the market economy, nor can we outlaw all pollution or equalize its (impacts). However, what we can do and what we must do is do more to address the imbalance and risks that results from those with more financial resources and louder political voices crowding out those bereft of both. This has created a concentration of the pollution-causing, sickness-causing, death-causing facilities in lower socio-economic communities.”
Singleton referenced the recent protests for social justice reforms and the end of racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
“This is our moment in history to turn a moment into a movement, to create a more just and fair society, not just in one aspect, but in every aspect of our society,” he said. “Black Lives matter when it comes into policing, yes that’s true. But it must matter when it comes to environmental law. It must matter when it comes to housing policy. It must matter when it comes to education policy. It must permeate every aspect of our policy agenda in the state.”
Murphy said he was committed to assisting Singleton and the other sponsors of the legislation to ensure it gets approved and signed into law.
“Permitting for industrial facilities isn’t one of the more attractive actions that government takes. But it is the seemingly small acts of government that can have huge impacts,” the governor said. “This administration sees things differently. These legislators see things differently. They know when we take care in executing the responsibilities of government — like permitting — we can do justice and make dramatic change in the lives of people who need it the most.”