What New Jersey’s new environmental justice law will and won’t achieve

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Maria Lopez-Nuñez conducted “toxic tours” of her community in Newark, New Jersey, which is known as Ironbound. She calls the neighborhood a “sacrifice zone” because its residents of color are disproportionately clustered in close proximity to a series of industrial facilities and polluting infrastructure. For years, Ironbound residents have endured the disquieting prevalence of asthma and cancer among their friends and neighbors, and they cannot help but connect that fact to the unpleasant odors and thick smog carried by the air they breathe.

When you voyage down Ironbound’s Doremus Avenue, you immediately notice the heavy concentration of industrial facilities, warehouses, and travelling freight trucks within the roughly 10-mile stretch that residents call the “chemical corridor.” Hop on traffic-choked Interstate 95 nearby, and you might glimpse a large garbage incinerator emanating a thick patch of smoke, a sewage treatment plant that has historically led to chemical spills, the Newark International Airport, and the Port of Newark, one of the largest shipping ports in the country.

photo of a truck driving through New Jersey ironbound district
A truck drives through the Ironbound district in Newark, New Jersey. The rise in truck and port traffic has prompted residents to push for additional measures to protect themselves from smog and pollution. Photo by Yana Paskova / For The Washington Post

On the opposite end of New Jersey from Newark’s Essex County, Camden — one of the nation’s poorest cities and a predominantly Black community — faces similar environmental threats. Essex and Camden counties have the highest rates of asthma hospitalizations and asthma-related emergency room visits in the entire state. In Camden County, one in three children is diagnosed with asthma; one in four children suffers from asthma in the city of Newark. The state’s asthma mortality rates overall are three times higher for Black and Latino residents, who are disproportionately exposed to the polluting industry in these cities.

Activists in Newark and Camden say that the state of New Jersey is finally taking seriously the public health risks that they have raised the alarm about for decades. On Monday, the New Jersey state Assembly’s Environment and Solid Waste Committee approved an environmental justice bill intended to protect these areas from further harm by essentially blocking any new industrial facility or expansion in pollution-burdened communities like those in Camden and Newark. Governor Phil Murphy took the unusual step of endorsing the legislation even before the state Senate’s approval of the bill last month. The bill is soon expected to get the approval of the full state Assembly and become law after receiving Murphy’s signature. This is despite considerable opposition from the state’s business lobby: Ray Cantor, vice president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, told NJ Spotlight that the bill will drive manufacturing from the state.

The bill requires the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to make and maintain a list of all overburdened communities across the state. The legislation defines an “overburdened community” as any census tract with at least half of households qualifying as low-income under federal guidelines, or at least 40 percent identifying as Black, Hispanic or Latino, or members of a state-recognized tribal community. When applying for a permit, an industrial applicant would need to prepare a thorough report evaluating the “cumulative impacts” that the facility would have on the overburdened community, which means also assessing the area’s preexisting exposure to environmental health risks. The DEP would then ensure that the report was publicized prior to a public hearing. After assessing both the report and testimonies made at the public hearing, the DEP would make a decision to approve or deny permits based on whether or not the facility would add an additional pollution burden to the community.

Newark and Camden both contain census tracts that would qualify as “overburdened” under the new law — and so do more than 300 of the state’s 565 municipalities. Roughly half of New Jersey’s 8.9 million total residents live in one of these communities, Murphy said during a news conference last month.

The bill takes aim at “a larger regulatory issue,” which is “the way the state issues permits as if they don’t take into consideration the vulnerabilities that exist” in a given area, said Lopez-Nuñez, who is also the deputy director of the Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC), a Newark-based nonprofit that works on multiple issues including environmental justice and housing, a few weeks before Murphy endorsed the bill.

“The way our laws are written are catered towards the industry to make sure they’re not being unfairly denied,” she told Grist. “But it doesn’t consider years and years of lack of planning that puts specific people — Black and brown working-class people — next to industry.”