The governor is likely to sign a bill that would require applicants for projects like power plants, sewage plants, landfills and waste disposal sites to consider their environmental impact on some of the state’s poorest communities.
Under Senate Bill 232 state officials can block those projects should their impact on these communities be deemed too harmful. Both the state Senate and Assembly approved the measure on Thursday, sending it to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk.
In June, Murphy said he would support the bill, calling it a key step in pursuit of an “aggressive environmental justice agenda.”
The bill requires application projects that would be major sources of air pollution, which have typically been situated in lower-income and non-white communities, to prepare an environmental impact statement on how the project would affect these “overburdened communities.”
“The concentration of energy, water and waste management infrastructure near urban cities has been a longstanding issue; one that has left neighboring communities disproportionately impacted and exposed to pollutants to an unimaginable detriment,” one of the bill’s sponsors, Assemblyman John McKeon, D-27th District, said in a Thursday statement.
Projects would require considerable public input, including well-promoted public hearings, from the neighboring communities where they would be located.
The bill allows the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to deny permits for a new facility if they find that environmental harm caused by the new facility would be too great for those communities.
But, a loophole would effectively allow the DEP to approve projects that still have a “compelling public interest” in being greenlit and built.
For expansions to existing facilities, or permit renewals, the DEP could impose conditions on the project “to protect the public health,” according to the text of the bill.
“While environmental laws broadly protect public health and the environment, they too often fail to account for the fact that facilities that cause some of the worst pollutions tend to be concentrated in low-income and minority communities, leading to disparities in exposure and in public health in those communities,” DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe said in a mid-June statement.
“Overburdened communities,” according to the bill, are those with at least 35 percent of households qualifing as low-income, or where at least 40 percent are minority or have limited English proficiency. According to the governor’s office, at least 310 out of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities fit the mold, comprising 4.5 million state residents.
The proposal has been pushed by environmental lobbyists for years, and could mark a major victory for them.
They, like the sponsors and the Murphy administration, argue that lower-income, often-times minority residents most often end up with the worst health consequences because of pollution from these nearby facilities.
“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,” Melissa Miles, executive director of the NJ Environmental Justice Alliance, said in a Thursday statement.