NJ Towns Burdened By Pollution Now Have Power To Say ‘No’

Long sought by environmental justice advocates, new law gives locals ability to reject new developments

Touting it as the strongest in the nation of its kind, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a new law that gives hundreds of communities in New Jersey the tools to block new projects that could increase pollution within those areas.

The legislation, a priority of environmental justice advocates ever since it was introduced in 2008, would require state environmental officials, for the first time, to consider the cumulative impacts of locating new power plants, manufacturing facilities, incinerators, or renewed air permits in communities already burdened with pollution from such plants.

Murphy signed the bill Friday at a park in Newark’s Ironbound section, a four-square-mile area that is home to three Superfund toxic waste sites, two power plants and a large garbage incinerator. “Today, we are sending a clear message that we will no longer allow Black and brown communities in our state to be dumping grounds, where access to clean air and clean water are overlooked,’’ Murphy said.

“The top indicator of whether a person lives in an area with toxicity in your air or water is the color of your skin. This is so wrong,’’ said U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from Newark, who is sponsoring environmental justice legislation at the national level.

Limiting well-paying jobs?

The new state law, however, faced tough opposition in the Legislature, partly because of its expansive nature — affecting portions of 310 communities with populations of more than 4.4 million people. Critics argued the tougher reviews faced by businesses could stifle economic growth and limit employment opportunities in areas where well-paying jobs are scarce.

Often described as the Holy Grail of the environmental justice movement, the bill offers a way for communities to stop projects in areas which are already burdened with facilities that lead to unhealthy air quality and to polluted water supplies. It applies to new projects as well as to facilities seeking renewal of air permits and other permits.

Environmental justice advocates have long criticized state and federal laws for failing to curb pollution within their communities. “This new law gives the state the power to ‘just say no’ pollution in my neighborhood,’’ said Kim Gaddy, environmental justice organizer for Clean Water Action.

The bill defines “overburdened communities’’ as those with significant minority populations, 40% low-income households, and 40% households with limited English proficiency. The definition was criticized by some lawmakers as having little connection with pollution impacts and resulted in portions of Alpine, Saddle River and Chatham falling under its definition.

But advocates said the law is long overdue from those communities suffering from unpleasant smells of industry and unsightly smoke from pollution. “Now after years of having no say, these communities will finally have a voice in the siting of these industries,’’ said Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), the sponsor of the bill.

“Twelve years is too long,’’ said Maria Lopez-Nuñez, deputy director of organizing at the Ironbound Community Corporation. “We don’t want to be the canaries in the coal mine anymore.’’

DEP regulation still needed

The new law will not take effect until the state Department of Environmental Protection adopts regulation governing how it will be implemented. The law specifies no time for that to be done, although it gives the agency 120 days to publish a list of “overburdened communities.’’

Murphy said the new law “is not the end, but the start of a stronger and fairer state.’’

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