Environmental Justice for Overburdened Communities: A View from New Jersey

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 Last year, the New Jersey state legislature passed a landmark environmental justice bill that requires the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to identify overburdened communities in the state and to evaluate whether facilities seeking operating permits pose a   disproportionate, cumulative environmental impact on these communities. Facilities located in the same census tract as overburdened communities are subject to this requirement and include facilities that are major sources of air pollution (as defined under the Clean Air Act); resource recovery facilities or incinerators; sludge processing facilities, combustors, or incinerators; sewage treatment plants with capacity over 50 million gallons per day; and certain kinds of landfills.
This important piece of legislation was signed into law by the governor making New Jersey the first state to require a mandatory denial of a permit for new facilities and to impose conditions on renewal and expansion permits for existing facilities based on environmental justice (EJ) concerns alone. A new permit will be denied for facilities “where an [EJ] analysis determines a facility will have a disproportionately negative impact on overburdened communities.”
An overburdened community is defined in this bill as any census block group that fulfills at least one of the following criteria:

  • At least 35% of households qualify as low-income
  • At least 40% of residents identify as minority or as members of a tribal community
  • At least 40% of households have limited English proficiency

A low-income household is one that is at or below twice the poverty threshold (determined annually by the US Census Bureau)
A household with limited English proficiency is one where no adult speaks English “very well,” according to the US Census Bureau.
The bill requires that a company that wants a permit for a new facility, an expansion of a facility, or a permit renewal for an existing facility and if that facility is located partially or completely in an overburdened community, then the company must do the following three things:

  1. Write an environmental justice impact statement that evaluates the unavoidable potential environmental and health impacts associated with the facility and  the environmental and health impacts already affecting the overburdened community.
  1. Provide the environmental justice impact statement to government entities and the Community.
  1. Hold a public hearing no sooner than 60 days after providing the environmental justice impact statement:
    • The public hearing must be publicized in at least two newspapers that serve the community (including one non-English language newspaper).
    • The notice of the public hearing must include: description of the proposed facility, summary of the impact statement, date/time/location of the hearing, address at which community members can submit written comments.
    • The state Department of Environmental Protection will post the impact statement and the information about the public hearing on its website.

At the hearing the company “shall provide clear, accurate and complete information.”
For a full text of the bill, go to: https://legiscan.com/NJ/text/S232/2020

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