The color of your skin or the thickness of your wallet shouldn’t determine your ability to breathe clean air.
That’s the logic behind a measure moving through the New Jersey Legislature which aims to give residents of poorer urban communities a powerful voice when it comes to the kind of development going on in their neighborhoods.
Sponsored by Democratic senators Troy Singleton of Burlington County and Loretta Weinberg of Bergen County, Bill S-1700 recognizes that pollution and contamination play a disproportionate role in certain communities – the legacy of policies too long left unchecked.
We’re talking about water-treatment facilities, waste-transfer stations and solid-waste facilities, which have traditionally been situated in urban areas whose low-income populations bear the unequal burden.
The Senate Environmental and Energy Committee recently approved the bill, which establishes a two-tiered system that gives these communities more impact, while giving the state more authority to deny a building permit if a project is determined to constitute an unreasonable health risk.
Under the bill, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection would not only be required to evaluate the impact of adding new pollution to a so-called “environmental justice” community but would also have to hold hearings to allow members of the public to have their say.
The DEP would not be permitted to issue a decision on a permit application until at least 60 days after the public hearing. Community support – or lack of it – would be a factor in any such decision.
Environmental justice is hardly a new concept. Civil right leader and Martin Luther King Jr. assistant Benjamin Chavis railed against what he called “environmental racism” almost four decades ago.
But the reality on the ground has been painfully resistant to change.
The new bill, which heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, would be a boon to communities such as Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood.
Kim Gaddy, an organizer for the organization Clean Water Action, is rightfully troubled that her fellow Newark residents suffer high rates of asthma, lung cancer, heart disease, stroke and neurological disorders.
“Personally, I am a parent of three asthmatic children who are impacted by the cumulative impacts of pollution sources in Newark,” Gaddy wrote on the organization’s website. “We can’t breathe or escape from the deadly diesel pollution. It’s everywhere.”
She blames many of these ills on port traffic, diesel truck exhaust, facilities such as the Newark garbage incinerator and the Passaic Valley sewer plant, and other industries.
With the advent last year of the Murphy Administration, which has declared environmental justice a priority, we finally seem to be moving in the right direction. What could be more reasonable – or more humane – than providing communities with a stronger say about the very quality of their lives?