N.J. Gov. Murphy signs environmental justice law designed to protect minority communities

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday signed environmental justice legislation that allows the state to deny permits for projects that would have an environmental impact on already “overburdened” communities, defined as those predominated by minority or low-income people.

The law, which supporters say is one of the toughest in the nation, would apply to proposals for new or expanded power plants, recycling facilities, incinerators, sludge operations, sewage treatment plants, landfills, or any other major source of potential pollution.

The state Department of Environmental Protection would review such projects for “the cumulative impacts” on public health or environmental risk, based on “combined past, present, and reasonably foreseeable” future pollution.

Murphy said in a statement that the law sends a clear message that the state will no longer “allow Black and brown communities in our state to be dumping grounds, where access to clean air and clean water are overlooked. 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.”

A collection of environmental and social justice organizations supported the legislation, sponsored by State Sens. Troy Singleton (D., Burlington) and Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen).

“Environmental Justice communities are well aware of how race and income relate to environmental burdens,” said Melissa Miles, executive director of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance. “This legislation is a critical step towards ensuring that all residents of New Jersey, regardless of their zip code and color of their skin, have the right to good health, clean air, and safe waters.”

Under the bill, a burdened community refers to a census tract ranked in the bottom 33% for median household income.

The DEP now must draft a list of overburdened communities, and then update it as new census data become available. Local governing bodies under that classification would have to designate a representative of the burdened community.

The law goes into effect in March 2021.

Anyone applying for a permit must submit a report that assess the environmental impact on a community within the list, and how the proposal would add to existing pollution.

The local governing body would hold a hearing, and the designated representative from the community would be present.

The DEP would be able to deny an application if it finds the approval would “constitute an unreasonable risk to the health of the residents of the burdened community and to the environment in that community.” The agency would also have to assess community support.

“This will be one of the strongest environmental justice bills in the nation,” said Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This is a major step forward to truly help protect these communities.”

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