New Jersey proposed a new environmental justice rule Monday that officials believe will be the toughest in the nation by carving out half the state’s population as living in “overburdened communities” and limiting the types of polluting businesses that can be built there.
Under the rule, the DEP could deny any proposal for a new or expanded power plant, recycling facility, incinerator, sludge operation, landfill, sewage treatment plant, recycling facility, scrap yard, or other major source of potential pollution within an overburdened block group. Officials hope to adopt the rule by the end of the year.
“This is a big deal because New Jersey is the first state in the entire country to wrestle meaningfully with addressing the accumulated impacts of pollution that are disproportionately experienced by low income, Black, brown, and Indigenous communities,” Shawn LaTourette, the DEP commissioner, said last week during a press briefing.
The goal is to protect areas with concentrations of low-income or sizable populations of Black and brown residents such as Camden from further pollution. The criteria used to determine those neighborhoods also put sections of many towns not normally thought of as overburdened such as Voorhees, Cherry Hill, and Deptford into the mix of potentially protected areas, according to an Inquirer analysis.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed the environmental justice legislation into law in 2021 that allows the state Department of Environmental Protection to deny permits for projects that would have an environmental impact on those already stressed areas.
What is an ‘overburdened community’?
The rule — the regulation that results from the law — for the first time defines an overburdened community as a census block group where at least 35% of households are low-income, 40% of residents “identify as minority,” or 40% of households have limited English proficiency. Only one of those criteria needs to be met.
The rule would not be used to block housing developments or commercial enterprises such as retail stores or business parks.
But it would be applied to any of types of newly regulated projects proposed for a block group deemed overburdened. Proposals would not automatically be rejected. Rather, regulators would look at 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 offer ways to lessen the impact through, say, electrifying its vehicle fleet, rerouting diesel-emitting truck traffic, or using some type of technology. If a proposal would make pollution and health issues worse, the DEP can deny the permit.
The bar would likely be high, however, for such a business to get approval, officials said.
Obligation ‘to do right’
LaTourette said he hopes the rule will be adopted by the end of the year after two public hearings in Trenton and separate hearings in Camden and Newark.
LaTourette sits on the Environmental Council of the States and says “everybody is watching this because it’s a watershed moment.”
Not everyone will be happy with the rule once it goes into effect, he said.
“It’s going to feel too big, too fast, too soon for some, and it’s going to feel too little, too slow, too late for others,” LaTourette said, saying the rule sought to strike a balance.
Regulated businesses will “grumble ... and lawyers will spend entire careers splitting” hairs over the rule, he predicted.
“There is an obligation on the part of that facility to do right by the community that hosts it,” LaTourette said.
How many people will be impacted?
Sean Moriarty, the DEP’s deputy commissioner for legal and regulatory affairs, said about 3,440 Census block groups representing 4.6 million people, roughly 51% of the state’s population, live in areas that are overburdened.
Almost all the census blocks in cities such as Camden and Trenton fall into the overburdened-communities category, meaning it will be difficult to get any of the restricted businesses built in those borders — a key intent of the law.
Overall, 308 census blocks are identified as overburdened in South Jersey communities within Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties. The state has launched an interactive mapping tool that identifies the communities.
Here are some examples of South Jersey towns in the immediate Philadelphia area with multiple overburdened blocks:
Burlington County: Burlington City, Burlington Township, 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.
Environmental and health ‘stressors’
Kandyce Perry, director of the DEP’s office of environmental justice, said the state will scrutinize any proposal by one of the newly regulated businesses looking to locate in an overburdened community. Officials will determine whether the facility would have a “disproportionate” impact on residents by examining 26 environmental or health “stressors.”
Environmental stressors include existing air pollution, contaminated sites, solid waste facilities, scrap yards, and water pollution. Health stressors include the rate of asthma, cancer, levels of lead in blood, cardiovascular disease, and development problems.
Perry helped create the online environmental justice mapping tool regulators will use as a guide.
The tool, she said, will allow both regulators and the public to identify where overburdened communities are and their proximity to existing polluting facilities, as well as the stressors the communities face.
“This is 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.