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Projects that expose communities of color in N.J. to more pollution must be axed under new rules


Aliyia Jones, right, and her daughter Infinity, 8, protest the air and water quality in Paulsboro on Monday, July 14, 2014. Paulsboro is among the communities listed as "overburdened" by New Jersey's new Environmental Justice Law.Tim Hawk | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com


More than two-and-a-half years ago, Gov. Phil Murphy gathered dozens of advocates and state lawmakers at Raymond Brown Park in Newark to sign milestone environmental justice legislation.


On Monday, after delays and to the collective sigh of relief by New Jersey environmentalists, the rules for the Environmental Justice Law — meant to safeguard communities in the state against the health impacts of pollution — were finalized and adopted.


The state says the law is the first of its kind and requires “mandatory permit denials if an environmental justice analysis determines a new facility will have a disproportionately negative impact on overburdened communities.”


“This law is going to make sure that we don’t keep (polluting in) communities of color, that we break the patterns of deciding that communities of color and low wealth communities are just dumping grounds,” Maria Lopez-Nuñez, deputy director for organizing and advocacy at the Ironbound Community Corporation, told NJ Advance Media on Monday afternoon.


The law lists more than 340 municipalities with over 4.6 million people in all of New Jersey’s 21 counties as “overburdened” — a designation based on the number of low-income households, number of homes that identify as minority and for their level of English proficiency.


It applies to power plants that generate 10 megawatts or more of electricity, incinerators, sewage treatment plants with a capacity of more than 50 million gallons per day, solid waste facilities, landfills and any project defined as a major source of air pollution under the federal Clean Air Act.


Under the law, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection must consider how pollution from the listed facilities and companies seeking to renew environmental permits could impact already-burdened communities.


If the department finds that facilities would have such a detrimental impact on the host region, it must automatically reject permit applications for the facility.


“Since the outset of my administration, we have worked incredibly hard to ensure that all people — regardless of income, race, ethnicity, color, or national origin — can enjoy their right to live, work, learn, and recreate in a clean and healthy environment,” said Murphy in a statement Monday. “As we enter Earth Week 2023, the final adoption of DEP’s EJ Rules will further the promise of environmental justice by prioritizing meaningful community engagement, reducing public health risks through the use of innovative pollution controls, and limiting adverse impacts that new pollution-generating facilities can have in already vulnerable communities.”


NJDEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette said frontline community leaders and business owners were pivotal in shaping the rules.


“While our work is far from complete, the EJ Rules offer new hope for New Jersey communities long overburdened by pollution,” LaTourette continued, “and new opportunity for New Jersey businesses to demonstrate their commitment to equity and environmental stewardship.”


While the laws’ signing dates back to 2020, advocates on Monday said efforts to make it a reality date back 15 years.


An administrative order established by LaTourette in 2021 required the state agency to follow the spirit of the law. While that required a “mini-review” of proposals, activists have felt the finalized rules would be more comprehensive and better arm the state to consider a flood of new projects.


Ray Cantor, vice president of government affairs for the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said Monday his group was concerned the rules prohibited new recycling facilities and other economic drivers from coming online, as well as limited public works projects.


“Unfortunately, these regulations exceed legislative intent, are not balanced in any way, and fail to recognize the benefits good-paying jobs bring to communities and the state as a whole,” Cantor said in a statement.


“These rules will (also) essentially lock out any new manufacturing from coming into the state and significantly prevent the expansion of existing businesses,” he added.


Lopez-Nuñez said it was important the rules did not consider economic benefits a “compelling public interest” because that prioritizes the public health of communities historically vulnerable to contaminants.


It remains unclear exactly how the Environmental Justice Law, also referred to as the “EJ Law” or “EJ rule,” will impact proposals and permit renewals that predate its adoption.


For example, earlier this year NJDEP officials said the law did not apply to a new Woodbridge gas-fired power plant proposal because initial air permit applications to move the project forward were submitted before the law was put forth.


Similar pending projects that have drawn the criticism of residents — as the state has chosen to review rather than completely block them since the EJ Law was signed — include the Regional Energy Access Expansion project in Somerset County, an expansion of the Covanta incinerator in Camden and a new Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission (PVSC) plant in Newark.


“When we began to help draft NJ’s environmental justice law, we wanted to codify that overburdened communities were able to lift their voices, be heard loud and clear, and get the justice they seek for their communities, families, and health,” Kim Gaddy, the environmental justice director of nonprofit Clean Water Action, said in a statement Monday.


“We then fought to make sure that the new rules stuck to the letter of the law’s intent — keep the language tight to make sure that not one more drop of pollution can be added to our already overburdened predominantly Black and brown, low-income, and language isolated communities,” she said. “No one should live like this, and this newly adopted EJ rule is going to help us get the justice and remedies we seek and deserve.”


Organizers from environmental nonprofits Clean Water Action, Ironbound Community Corporation, and the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance said in a statement Monday they hope the law will also meaningfully include “affected communities in the decision-making process.”


Iterations of the regulations in the EJ Law had been proposed by Democratic lawmakers as far back as 2008, when the measure was initially introduced by the now-late state Sen. Ron Rice, D-Essex, and now-retired state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen.


Although early versions of the bill failed to gain traction, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 put to the forefront inequalities in public and environmental health. A Harvard study in April 2020 linked historic exposure to air pollution with higher death rates from the disease.


More momentum came to the proposal in the summer of 2020, as a massive movement — spurred by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others — urged local and state leaders to tackle societal systematic racism and inequities.


LaTourette during a series of environmental justice meetings has noted the more than 2 years that have elapsed before adopting the law only speak to how thorough state officials have been in outlining what the rules will look like.


State Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex, a co-sponsor of the measure, on Monday called this the “strongest environmental justice bill in the nation” and that it “speaks to who we are as a state.”


According to a summary released by Murphy’s office Monday afternoon, under the rules:


  • when proposing to locate certain pollution-generating facilities in an overburdened community, an applicant must prepare an environmental justice impact statement and engage directly with members of their proposed host community by hosting a public hearing

  • applicant must collect all public comments and respond to them in writing

  • the NJDEP will then evaluate whether pollution from the proposed facility would cause or contribute to environmental and public health stressors at levels disproportionate to those in less burdened communities

  • the EJ Rules require permit applicants to avoid and minimize such stressors, including through the use of added pollution control technology

  • where disproportionate impacts are not avoidable, certain new facilities could be limited, or existing facilities could be subject to additional permit conditions that reduce environmental and public health stressors affecting the community

“As a resident of a overburdened community, I would like to see major sources of air pollution to include warehousing due to excessive diesel trucks that would be traveling through our town as a result of these type of (facilities),” Bindi Patel, a Princeton Junction resident, said in an online comment last year regarding the EJ Law.


Kandyce Perry, director of the NJDEP’s office of environmental justice, said Monday, “Though we are leading the nation in considering cumulative stressors when reviewing permits, we will continue to seek every opportunity and authority the state has to apply a lens of environmental justice to our work.”


To read the EJ rules click here.


Read the original article here.

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