Across the country, environmental justice has become a buzzword deployed in goals, aspirations and administration actions.
But in New Jersey, officials are getting real: They’re putting the finishing touches on rules designed to block construction of heavy industrial facilities in “overburdened” communities. Lawmakers in other states appear to be watching the developments as they think about laws of their own.
New Jersey put out a 150-page draft rule last week requiring companies to consider how eight different kinds of industrial facilities might further pollute what the state calls overburdened environmental justice communities — those with many people of color, low-income households or residents who don’t speak fluent English.
Companies have often been able to run roughshod over local opposition in such communities to build or expand industrial operations that pollute the air, water and land, and destroy quality of life.
The new rule is the result of a 2020 law that environmental justice advocates hailed as a “holy grail” and have been watching closely. Similar bills had been kicked around for years, but it was the national outrage over the murder of George Floyd that got it over the finish line in New Jersey, said state Sen. Troy Singleton, the Democrat who helped shepherd the bill to passage.
Now, Singleton said he is talking with policymakers in other states, including Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware, about similar bills they have pending. The head of the New York Senate introduced a similar bill, but it didn’t move during the just-ended legislative session.
“I do think this is precedent, but I do believe in the crawl, walk, run theory of life,” Singleton said.
While the New Jersey law is broad, it also has limitations. It would prevent construction of facilities that would disproportionately affect communities already suffering from smokestack emissions, truck traffic and other pollution sources. It attempts to address cumulative pollution — a major shift from current law, which examines each industrial facility’s impact in isolation.
“It’s not like we have compartments in our lungs where they each go through a different compartment,” said Nicky Sheats , a professor at New Jersey’s Kean University and an environmental justice activist. “We breathe them in together, and it mixes and that’s not being taken into account.”
But the law only applies to eight types of facilities, including incinerators, sewage treatment plants and landfills, and it includes a blanket exemption for ones that are in the “compelling public interest,” which is still undefined. (The proposed rule does specify that economic activity alone doesn’t constitute a compelling interest.)
It will likely take years of implementation and legal challenges to know whether the law and the rule are doing what environmental justice activists have hoped for, but Singleton has an easy test for its success.
He heard about a game that children played in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, one of the state’s most notoriously polluted and overburdened communities: They played at guessing what plant was operating by the smell in the air. Another gas-fired power plant is still on the drawing board there and isn’t subject to the new law.
“When they no longer have to play that game, then I think we’ve done our job,” Singleton said.