Businesses will now have more hurdles to clear to move ahead with large-scale projects – be it new construction or an expansion – that produce heavy pollution in lower-income, typically African American and Latino communities, under a new law Gov. Phil Murphy signed Friday.
Environmental advocates have called the measure a “holy grail” that would protect these marginalized urban parts of the state from pollution and a slew of negative health impacts.
“Residents in our environmental justice communities have suffered adverse health conditions at rates many times higher than residents elsewhere,” Murphy said at the Friday morning bill signing at Tichenor Park in Newark. “We know that [COVID-19] has been particularly worse for those with underlying health conditions, so it is important … that we send the message that no longer will economically disadvantaged areas of our states be dumping grounds.”
Under Senate Bill 232, applicants for projects like gas-powered refineries and power plants, sewage plants, landfills, incinerators and other waste disposal sites will have to consider their environmental impact on these communities.
A company will have to submit a statement on the project’s potential environmental and public health impact on the local community and hold a public hearing for its residents.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection could block the new project, or the proposed expansion of an existing facility, if the impact is too great. Or, it could impose a litany of conditions that have to be met for the project to move forward. A loophole would effectively allow the DEP to approve projects that still have a “compelling public interest” in being greenlit and built.
The bill stalled in the state Legislature for several years – going as far back as 2008 – before Murphy said in June that he would sign the measure.
Out of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities, Murphy said there are 310 “overburdened communities,” as outlined in the bill, spanning 4.5 million state residents.
They’re defined as those with at least 35 percent of households qualifying as low-income, or where at least 40 percent are minority or have limited English proficiency.
The park where Murphy signed the bill is situated just miles away from Newark Liberty International Airport, in between a solid waste incinerator on the other side of the city and another in Elizabeth, which each pump thousands of tons of waste into the air each day.
The park also sits miles away from the New Jersey Turnpike, which for decades has been infamous for being lined with foul-smelling factories and power plants, that along with congested motorways have pumped hundreds of thousands of tons of waste and toxic fumes into the surrounding atmosphere each year.
The interstate highway is also straddled by superfund sites and former landfills, and the north of the city is bound by the Passaic River, one of the most toxic and heavily-polluted bodies of water in the nation.
“This story of Newark was a story of corporations engaging in activities that were undermining the treasure of our communities, not just our environment but the prospect of living a healthy life,” U.S Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat who was mayor of Newark from 2006 to 2013, said at the Friday bill-signing.
The American Lung Association, in its annual State of the Air report this April, graded the quality of New Jersey’s air as some of the worst and most unhealthy in the nation, with the counties close to New York City and Philadelphia being among the hardest-hit.
And a report that month from the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that COVID-19 patients who lived in highly-polluted areas were more likely to die from the virus.
The proposal was pushed by environmental lobbyists for years and marks a major victory for them.
“In many ways, this has been the Holy Grail for the environmental justice movement,” reads a statement from Nicky Sheats, a board member with the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance.
Meanwhile, business groups, like the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, lamented that the new law would “shut down economic opportunities in urban areas.”
“A bill that attempts to further New Jersey’s progress in solving challenges is so broad and overreaching that half of the state would be denied economic growth opportunities,” NJBIA Vice President of Government Affairs Ray Cantor said in a statement.
Proponents of the legislation disputed the notion, however, that the two were mutually exclusive.
“We are collectively dispelling the myth that you can either have economic development or environmental justice but not both,” Murphy said. “Starting today, we are restoring that balance.”