By: Ruth Rodriguez, Communications Intern

“I’m hoping this bill can pave the way for a tidal wave of bills like this across the country.”

Maria Lopez-Nuñez, Deputy Director, Organizing and Advocacy of Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC) in Newark, Jersey shared her experience as one of the leaders that helped pass S232, the strongest environmental justice law in the United States. Signed by Governor Murphy in New Jersey, the law protects overburdened communities by requiring the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to evaluate permits based on cumulative impacts of pollution.

Born in Honduras, Lopez-Nuñez moved to New Jersey when she was 3 years old. She later earned a degree in philosophy. Her entry to environmental justice work was through social justice and began at ICC in 2014.

The Ironbound neighborhood in Newark, the largest city in New Jersey, is situated among the state’s largest incinerator, 2 power plants, a railroad, a port, and a river that is the longest superfund site in the nation. Lopez-Nuñez describes the neighborhood as a “toxic soup.”

Pushed by ICC, New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, and Clean Water Action of New Jersey for 12 years, a new and groundbreaking environmental justice bill was signed into law in September. Originally, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection claimed that they did not have the jurisdiction to deny permits based on cumulative impacts. Every factory and industry was viewed as an individual in the permitting process. When each individual goes up to their limit, the combination of their pollution and waste falls upon the community. The Environmental Justice law, also referred to as Cumulative Impacts, protects overburdened communities by mandating that the Department of Environmental Protection “SHALL DENY” a permit to an industry that adds burden to the neighborhood. An impacted community is measured by Census block and defined as 40 percent people of color, OR 40 percent monolingual, non-english speaking, OR 35 percent low income. The definition was designed to be inclusive and protect people of color and low income white communities. If a new facility is planning to settle in an environmental justice/impacted community, a review on cumulative impacts is triggered. Renewals and expansions receive conditions on their permits to lower emissions and pollution. Lopez-Nuñez says, “I’m looking forward to that first denial under the bill, that will be our historic moment come true.”

“I’m hoping that other people can build on this…they always ask you who else has done it…you can go and say that this bill in New Jersey has ‘shall deny’ as the premise.”

The law is not currently in effect, but is in its rulemaking process. During this period, industry begins lobbying to create loopholes in the legislation. Lopez-Nuñez says that the hardest part of the journey now is to influence the bureaucrats. She found that using tangible things like the way the air smells was effective in community organizing, and stresses that the community needs to lead and negotiate for themselves. Community members are trained to participate in stakeholder meetings. She said that, “It’s not about intelligence, it’s just about a little determination.”

“At the heart it’s about community organizing and making sure we’re all connected…fight together against the forces that would really just bury us.”