TRENTON — Citing nationwide Juneteenth celebrations, Gov. Phil Murphy said Friday it’s time to pass legislation giving state regulators the authority to deny development permits to businesses whose operations pollute primarily Black communities.
Murphy, a Democrat, announced his support for the legislation in Trenton, alongside Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, lawmakers and other community activists. Murphy, who is white, announced his support for the legislation pending in the Democrat-led Legislature as communities across the country celebrate the June 19 holiday that long commemorated the emancipation of enslaved African Americans.
The legislation aims to address what Murphy and lawmakers say have been years of putting incinerators, refineries and other businesses that pollute the air and water in cities and towns with mostly Black populations.
“Decades of inaction have led to environmental disparities throughout the state, creating overburdened communities that are unjustly exposed to significant air and water pollutants,” Murphy said.
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Democratic state Sen. Troy Singleton, of Burlington County, is one of the bill’s authors, and said the national climate focused on addressing racism makes it the right time to push for the measure, which has been introduced in each session of the Legislature since 2008 but never became law.
“Issues like this oftentimes find their moment in history,” said Singleton, who is Black. “And right now we find it is the confluence of a lot of factors that have placed this issue of environmental justice more in the forefront than perhaps it has been in the past.”
The legislation requires the Department of Environmental Protection to evaluate public health and environmental effects when certain businesses such as power plants, incinerators, sewage treatment facilities and other trash-processing plants apply for permits in certain communities. They’re defined as census tracts when 35% of the population are low-income, or 40% of households are a minority or have limited English proficiency.
About 300 towns accounting for half the state’s population live in the communities defined under the bill, Murphy said.
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DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe said the legislation would give state regulators the power to deny permits in such instances for the first time. Current law applies broadly and makes it difficult to deny permits, she said.
“What we can do is say this pollutant cannot be emitted at levels that would cause the ambient air in this air quality area, which by statute is defined as a very broad area, and as long as it does (satisfy that standard), we don’t have a basis to say no,” she said. “What this bill would allow us to do is say, that’s not the end of the story.”
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the date when word of the Emancipation Proclamation reached African Americans in Texas. President Abraham Lincoln first issued the proclamation declaring all slaves free in Confederate territory on Sept. 22, 1862, but the news took time to travel.