Backyard Talk

Environmental Justice for Overburdened Communities: A View from New Jersey

 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:

Backyard Talk

They can breathe. And it’s killing them.

By: Gustavo Andrade

What happens to people when the air they breathe is so polluted with chemicals that the simple act of inhaling hurts? When they go out to their car every morning to find a half-inch-thick layer of ‘dust’ on it? When kids in the neighborhood seem to share certain birth defects and developmental challenges to a disturbing degree? When so many neighbors develop cancers at an alarmingly young age?

Here’s what’s been happening to people who have to live in America’s Sacrifice Zones: They perish, as shamefully as Mr. Floyd; with the knee of corporate polluters pushing steadily and unrelentingly against their necks.

No individual or corporation will be held responsible, no charges will be filed, and no damages will be paid to grieving families.

After all, the company settled on this area for a reason: local residents are black, latino, indigenous, white and in all cases, poor. They can’t afford lawyers and don’t have time on their side. They lack political power, are unorganized and don’t even know what is being done to them. To those in power, they are easy prey.

When you live in a Sacrifice Zone, it means your neighborhood falls in the 70th percentile of cancer and respiratory illness in your state. You might have a power plant down the street from the kids’ school, or some type of factory just up the road from your church. You’re told they’re good people who bring jobs in so you shouldn’t ask too many questions about their business.

Now, what happens when those residents start to organize?

Well then, friend, all hell breaks loose.

They start asking questions. They start talking to one another and having meetings. Yes, sometimes even on Zoom. They form coalitions and neighborhood organizations and hold press conferences and make demands.

They start misbehaving.

And that’s how they, like the brave protesters and freedom fighters out on the streets, finally force that knee off their necks and win.


Sacrifice Zones Have Higher Death Rates From COVID-19

Sacrifice zones are communities that are unequally overburdened by pollution from industry at the expense of other communities using the industrial end product. Sacrifice zones are typically characterized by having a majority low-income and/or minority population and currently have the highest death rates from COVID-19. Recent studies conducted by Harvard University and the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic have researched the correlation between areas with higher concentrations of particulate matter (PM2.5) and/or toxic air pollutants, and higher death rates from COVID-19. Given the evidence that sacrifice zones are some of the most severely impacted communities from the pandemic, we ask the question why isn’t more being done to protect these vulnerable populations? Read More.

Backyard Talk

Sacrifice Zones Illuminate Need for More Comprehensive Public Health Protection

by Summer-Solstice Thomas, CHEJ Science & Tech Intern
On Wednesday July 31st, 2019, the morning air in Baytown, Texas filled with black smoke after an explosion the Exxon Mobil Olefins Plant. Nearby residents described the blast as so powerful that their houses shook and their windows rattled. Residents downwind of the plant were notified of a voluntary shelter-in-place, advising them to stay inside with their windows and doors shut. It was lifted four hours later after air monitoring had found no contaminant concentrations large enough to be “of concern.”
As one of the United State’s largest petrochemical facilities, the Baytown Olefins Plant, is one of three Exxon Mobil plants all around one mile from each other, forming a triangle of chemical processing and refining. The air cancer toxics risk, as reported by the 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA), for a three mile radius zone with its center equidistant from these three facilities is 62 in a million. This means that if a million people were chronically exposed over a lifetime to the concentrations of air contaminants in this zone, 62 of them would contract cancer as a direct result of such exposure. This high level of cancer risk falls within the 99th percentile for the state of Texas and the 95th-100 percentile nationally, which means that the cancer risk for Baytown, Texas is some of the highest in the entire nation. Meanwhile, the NATA respiratory hazard index for the same zone is 3.3, indicating that the estimated long-term exposure to respiratory irritants is, on average, 3.3 times greater than the corresponding health-based reference concentration. This high level of respiratory hazard is also some of the highest in the nation: it falls within the 97th state percentile and 90-95th national percentile.
Here at CHEJ, we see Baytown as an example of a “sacrifice zone,” a region especially concentrated with intensive industry operations, leading to levels of chemical exposures that threaten the health of the community’s residents. Due to the phenomenon of white flight from metropolitan industrial centers in the 1960s, and the pattern of siting industrial facilities in areas with low property values, sacrifice zones are often communities of color and/or low socioeconomic status. The health burden experienced by these residents living near numerous chemical facilities is often compounded by limited access to healthcare and other wellness resources. Current regulatory policies don’t take into account the clustering pattern common to chemical facilities, leaving such communities disproportionately exposed to high levels of toxic chemicals. 
Other examples of sacrifice zones are Detroit, Michigan, where 48217 has been dubbed “the most toxic zip code in the US,” or St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana where the NATA air toxics cancer risk is 500 in a million, over 15 times the national average. Unsurprisingly, these zones follow not only the pattern of extreme chemical exposure, but of this disparate burden falling on low-income communities of color. 48217 consists of predominately African-American residents, with an 89% minority population. Over half the population living within three miles of the largest facility in the area, a Marathon Petroleum refinery, falls below the poverty line. St. John the Baptist hosts another major Marathon refinery, where 34.1% of the people residing within three miles of the facility live below the poverty line. The parish itself is 63.6% minority. In 2017, this refinery emitted 79 tons, or 158,073lbs, of chemicals identified by the EPA as Hazardous Air Pollutants, defined as “those pollutants that are known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects.” 
These, and other facilities across America, emit huge amounts of air toxics every day, endangering the communities around them. More comprehensive and effective regulatory legislation is clearly needed to ensure not only that residents of Baytown, Detroit, and St. John the Baptist, but that every American, has clean air to breathe. 
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Marathon Refinery in Detroit / Wikimedia Commons
Marathon Refinery in Detroit / Wikimedia Commons