Pollution is an environmental justice issue. It affects low-income, marginalized communities first and most, as they also bear the brunt of climate change and habitat destruction. People of color contribute less, yet suffer more from pollution, research has shown, and this is especially true in cities with high population density. In New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the country, Black Americans are five times more likely to die from asthma than white people, and Hispanic people are twice as likely, according to an analysis by the NJ Department of Health, which looked at data from 2015 to 2017.
Dovetailing with environmental crises, protests have unearthed racial inequities in all corners of public policy, and this past summer Black Lives Matter protests in New Jersey resurrected a tabled environmental justice law that had been in limbo for years, reports NorthJersey.com.
Gov. Phil Murphy publicly stated his support for the bill, S-232, on Juneteenth of this year, and signed it into law last week along with U.S. Senators, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and environmental advocates. The law will be one of the toughest of its kind on top polluters, and is one of the most stringent environmental justice laws in the country, said the Office of the Governor in a press release.
The law will protect “overburdened” communities from polluters by requiring any business or company that wants to build in that target area to submit a statement evaluating the potential effects on asthma, lead poisoning, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and developmental issues.
Along with the statement, the company is required to hold a public community hearing in the particular neighborhood prior to permit application, reports NorthJersey.com.
An “overburdened” community is defined, according to the census, as having one or more of the following demographics: 35 percent or more low-income households, 40 percent of residents are minorities or of a State-recognized tribal community, or 40 percent or more households have limited English proficiency. In New Jersey, 310 municipalities qualify as overburdened, according to the bill.
The polluters that will be held to this law include fossil fuel power plants or refineries, and any other major source of pollution, medical waste incinerators, waste, recycling and scrap metal facilities, sewage and sludge facilities, and landfills, according to the report.
If the Department of Environmental protection finds the environmental or public health assessment to have disproportionately negative effects on the state’s vulnerable populations than it would in a non-burdened municipality, it is mandated to deny the permit, says the bill.
“Today we are sending a clear message that we will longer allow Black and Brown communities in our state to be dumping grounds, where access to clean air and clean water are overlooked,” said Gov. Murphy in the press release. “This action is a historic step to ensure that true community input and collaboration will factor into decisions that have a cumulative impact for years to come. I’m incredibly proud that New Jersey is now home to the strongest environmental justice law in the nation.”
Claire Marie Porter was Next City’s INN/Columbia Journalism School intern for Fall 2020. She is a Pennsylvania-based journalist who writes about health, science, and environmental justice, and her work can be found in The Washington Post, Grid Magazine, WIRED and other publications.