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  • Chris Tirri

A step toward justice for environmental justice

Amid a year of pandemic-related chaos and passionate movements to eradicate systemic racism, one positive consequence of the tumult has been the renewed interest in a New Jersey bill (NJ S232) over a decade in the making that addresses environmental justice for low-income neighborhoods with large minority populations.

NJ S232 mandates the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) play a direct role in the decision-making process when it comes to granting permits for the development of heavily polluting industries (e.g., sewage treatment facilities and waste management plants) in “overburdened communities.”

Although states like California and New York include impact assessments in their own processes, New Jersey is the first state in the union with specific verbiage mandating the denial of permits “if an environmental justice analysis determines a new facility will have a disproportionately negative impact on overburdened communities,” according to New Jersey’s state website. In this way, New Jersey’s legislation distinguishes itself from other states’ more “procedural” laws that mostly function as environmental lip service without much authority or follow-through.

As a democrat, Governor Phil Murphy has made a concerted effort during his tenure thus far to address issues of historic statewide inequity that have had unbalanced effects on cities like Atlantic City, Camden, Elizabeth, Trenton, and Newark. These effects include health-related problems like asthma and cancer and development-related stagnation that have prevented these cities from experiencing the kind of growth they deserve.

A handful of state senators and assemblymen echoed those sentiments in their endorsements of the new bill. Senator Troy Singleton underscored how residents of these “overburdened communities” “have had their lives routinely and inconveniently interrupted by the toxic facilities located in their neighborhoods,” with Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg similarly emphasizing how the injustices have been “significant [and] multi-generational.”

Any newly proposed polluting facilities must receive special designation from the NJDEP as serving a “compelling public interest” that outweighs their further contribution to long-standing environmental and social injustices. This designation hopes to rebalance costs and benefits so that certain less affluent communities no longer suffer for the benefit of their more affluent neighbors. “Not in My Backyard” sentiments will thus apply equitably across municipalities.

Industry leaders, however, worry that NJ S232 and environmental justice come at their industries’ expense. They believe the new law will essentially force their employees and jobs out of the area and make promotion (from a support and marketing standpoint) nearly impossible.

Some lobbyists have taken things to an even more extreme level by co-opting the term “redlining,” which historically refers to racist zoning practices that targeted minorities, especially black residents, and complain of too much government overreach. The irony and hypocrisy of these lobbyists’ concerns seem tragically lost on them.

What NJ S232 seeks to do, though, is not “redline” industries in favor of overburdened communities but rather give those communities a fighting chance. It also hopes to prove to government officials, industry leaders, private investors, and residents alike that economic development can occur simultaneously with efforts focused on promoting environmental justice.

Note: The blog was written as part of Rowan University Environmental and Sustainability Planning course, spring 2021.

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