New Jersey on Monday proposed a new environmental justice rule that officials say will be the toughest in the nation by dividing nearly half of the state’s population as living in “overcrowded communities” and limiting types polluting businesses that can be built there.
Under the rule, DEP could refuse any proposal for a new or expanded power plant, recycling facility, incinerator, sludge operation, landfill, sewage treatment plant, recycling, scrapyard or any other major source of potential pollution within a group of overloaded blocks. . Officials hope to adopt the rule by the end of the year.
“It’s a big deal because New Jersey is the first state in the entire country to meaningfully address the cumulative impacts of pollution that are disproportionately borne by low-income, black, brown, and Indigenous communities. “, Shawn LaTourette, the DEP commissioner, said last week during a press briefing.
The aim is to protect areas with low-income or large concentrations of black and brown resident populations such as Camden from further pollution. The criteria used to determine these neighborhoods also puts sections of many towns that are not normally considered overcrowded, such as Voorhees, Cherry Hill and Deptford, in the mix of potentially protected areas, according to an Inquirer analysis.
Governor Phil Murphy signed the Environmental Justice Act into law in 2021 that allows the state Department of Environmental Protection to deny permits for projects that would have an environmental impact on these already stressed areas.
The rule – the regulation that results from the law – defines for the first time a crowded community as a group of census blocks where at least 35% of households are low-income, 40% of residents “identify as a minority or 40% of households have limited English proficiency. Only one of these criteria must be met.
The rule would not be used to block housing estates or commercial businesses such as retail store business parks.
But it would apply to all types of newly regulated projects proposed for a group of blocks deemed overloaded. Proposals would not automatically be rejected. Instead, regulators would consider whether a community already faces a disproportionate level of pollution and health issues compared to neighboring areas, and how a new project might affect those levels.
A developer can come up with ways to reduce the impact, such as electrifying their fleet of vehicles, redirecting diesel-emitting truck traffic, or using some type of technology. If a proposal would aggravate pollution and health problems, the DEP can refuse the permit.
However, the bar would likely be high for such a company to gain approval, officials said.
LaTourette said he hopes the rule will pass by the end of the year after two public hearings in Trenton and separate hearings in Camden and Newark.
LaTourette sits on the States Environmental Council and said “everyone is watching this because it’s a watershed moment.”
Not everyone will be happy with the rule once it comes into effect, he said.
“It’s going to feel too big, too fast, too early for some, and it’s going to feel too small, too slow, too late for others,” LaTourette said, saying the rule seeks to strike a balance.
Regulated companies will “complain … and lawyers will spend entire careers cutting their hair” about the rule, he predicted.
“There is an obligation on the part of this facility to do good by the community that hosts it,” LaTourette said.
Sean Moriarty, the DEP’s deputy commissioner for legal and regulatory affairs, said about 3,440 census block groups representing 4.6 million people, or about 51% of the state’s population, live in overloaded areas.
Almost all census blocks in towns like Camden and Trenton fall into the category of overcrowded communities, which means it will be difficult to get any of the restricted businesses built within those borders – a key intent of the law.
Overall, 308 census blocks are identified as overloaded in South Jersey communities in Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties. The state launched an interactive mapping tool which identifies the communities.
Here are some examples of South Jersey towns in the immediate Philadelphia area with multiple crowded blocks:
— Burlington County: City of Burlington, Township of Burlington, Edgewater Park, Pemberton and Willingboro.
— Camden County: Cherry Hill, Gloucester Township, Lindenwold, Pennsauken, Voorhees and Winslow
— Gloucester County: Clayton, Deptford, Glassboro, Paulsboro, Monroe, West Deptford
Kandyce Perry, director of the DEP’s office of environmental justice, said the state would consider any proposals from any of the newly regulated companies seeking to locate in an overcrowded community. Officials will determine whether the facility would have a “disproportionate” impact on residents by looking at 26 environmental or health “stressors”.
Environmental stressors include existing air pollution, contaminated sites, solid waste facilities, scrap yards, and water pollution. Health stressors include rates of asthma, cancer, blood lead levels, cardiovascular disease, and developmental issues.
Perry helped create the online environmental justice mapping tool that regulators will use as a guide.
The tool, she said, will allow regulators and the public to identify where overburdened communities are located and their proximity to existing polluting facilities, as well as the stressors communities face.
“It’s also a step toward our environmental justice goal of giving everyone equal access to information to influence environmental decisions about what happens in their communities,” Perry said.