The Struggle to Decrease Air Pollution in New Jersey: The Signing of Historic Environmental Justice Legislation

On Friday, August 18, New Jersey made environmental history. On this day, at Titchener Park in Newark, Governor Phil Murphy signed into law one of the most comprehensive bills in the country to address air, water, and land pollution that is disproportionately borne by New Jersey’s low-income communities and communities of color. In New Jersey’s most overburdened communities, this legislation will help residents breathe a little easier and help reduce the disparate health outcomes experienced by these communities. 

We congratulate our environmental justice partners who have led the fight for this law for over a decade – New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, Ironbound Community Corporation, and Clean Water Action— and who succeeded in forming a diverse coalition of over 250 labor, faith, environmental, and justice groups to ensure the passage of this historic legislation. 

With the passage of this law, New Jersey set a national precedent for enabling overburdened communities, many of which are identified as low-income and communities of color, to finally have the power to say “no” to big polluters seeking to either set up shop or expand existing facilities. Potentially major polluting projects are now subject to an environmental justice impacts assessment by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that requires input from local residents who would live with the additional pollution burdens and quality of life effects before the project could move forward.

As a young African American environmental advocate, I am pleased this bill provides the much needed opportunity for our state’s most vulnerable communities to finally have a say in whether polluting facilities can or cannot operate within their neighborhoods. I am a proud resident and former councilman of Phillipsburg, a town looking to bounce back from its industrialized history rooted deeply in railroads and manufacturing. Phillipsburg ranks amongst the 35 poorest towns throughout New Jersey. I mention this because Phillipsburg residents have experienced our own environmental injustices, and this new law will help over 300 communities like mine.

Let me be clear, this cumulative impacts law is not a panacea for environmental justice communities. There is still much work to do to ensure that low-income and communities of color have the same clean air and water as whiter, more affluent communities. However, the implementation of this law is a piece within a much larger puzzle to get our state on the right course.

For decades, low-income and communities of color have suffered from environmental racism in the name of “economic progress,” being told that despite the consequences of a legacy of cumulative and systemic pollution that has plagued our overburdened communities, residents should be grateful for the jobs that come with “progress.” The argument has set up a false dichotomy that communities can’t have both - a clean, healthy community and jobs. We’ve heard that same misleading nonsense echoed by business lobbyists and others who argued against the cumulative impacts bill, saying it would only stifle businesses seeking to expand or create new facilities within the state. This rhetoric completely ignores the massive number of jobs that a green economy can produce, as well as the core intent of this legislation: to improve the quality of life for residents that for so long have had to learn to accept a lower standard of living. This diminished quality of life includes an alarmingly higher incidence of illnesses that can be directly linked to air pollution. For example, one negative health outcome is asthma, according to the National Institutes of Health, the medical cost and lost job productivity resulting from asthma alone costs New Jersey $450 million annually.

As I proudly stood in Newark, witnessing history being made by a stroke of a pen, I reflected on the responsibility that now falls to the DEP to execute and enforce the intent that our state’s environmental justice organizations and communities have fought so long and hard to enact. This is a defining moment for New Jersey. Will New Jersey be an environmental leader in our nation, continuing to help set the precedent for other states to follow, or a state with good intent, but the inability to follow through? I pray for the former.