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Now Law: McKeon, Vainieri Huttle & Timberlake Bill Advancing Environmental Justice

Emphasizing the need to address acute environmental burdens facing certain communities in New Jersey, legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats John McKeon, Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Britnee Timberlake to amend the process through which certain environmental permits are issued was signed into law Friday.

“The concentration of energy, water and waste management infrastructure near urban cities has been a longstanding issue; one that has left neighboring communities disproportionately impacted and exposed to pollutants to an unimaginable detriment,” said McKeon (D-Essex, Morris). “An overhaul of the way infrastructure gets approved and built, and systemic reform that puts people and communities directly at the heart of decision-making is what New Jersey needs.”

Under the law (formerly bill A-2212/S-232), the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will be required to evaluate, when reviewing certain permit applications, the environmental and public health stressors on overburdened communities of certain facilities such as landfills, waste incinerators, sewage plants and others that are a ‘major source’ of air pollution as defined in the federal Clean Air Act.

The status of being ‘overburdened’ will be determined based on most recent U.S. Census data where at least 35 percent of households are low-income, at least 40 percent residents identify as a minority, or at least 40 percent of households have limited English language proficiency.

“Families living in urban neighborhoods have for too long disproportionately faced the negative effects of pollution, with scores of children in these communities being diagnosed with asthma and being put at greater risk of experiencing chronic health issues throughout their lifetimes,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “With this law, we are making sure that the voices of these communities, who stand to be impacted the most, are centralized in the permitting process.”

Any application to obtain an environmental permit for a new facility or an expansion of an existing facility, or to renew an existing ‘major source’ permit, where it is located in or partially in an overburdened community, will need to meet certain conditions.

Under these conditions, a permit applicant will be required to provide an environmental justice impact statement that assesses the environmental and public health stressors of the proposal to the DEP. These will be published online, and a public hearing to be held within the overburdened community would follow.

“To better invest in our underserved communities, it is beyond critical we address the environmental injustices they been saddled with for decades,” said Timberlake (D-Essex, Passaic). “We cannot allow a legacy where your health is dependent on your zip code to persist.”

The DEP will need to take a minimum of 45 days following the public hearing to consider a permit before issuing a decision.

Under the bill, the DEP will be required to deny approval of a permit for a new facility upon finding that approval would cause or contribute to adverse cumulative environmental or public health stressors in the overburdened community higher than those borne by other communities. However, if there is compelling public interest for a facility permit, then the DEP could grant approval with conditions on the construction and operation of the facility to protect public health.

For existing facility expansions or major source permit renewals, if the DEP finds that approval would cause or contribute to adverse environmental or public health stressors in an overburdened community, it will have discretion to impose conditions on the approval regarding facility construction and operation to protect public health.