On September 18th, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed into law a landmark environmental justice bill. This bill, NJ S232, is designed to limit new sources of pollution in environmental justice communities by allowing the Department of Environmental Protection to deny permits for power plants, incinerators, landfills, large recycling facilities and sewage treatment plants if the new permits introduce additional health and environmental risks to already overburdened communities. This is the first state bill to address environmental injustice and cumulative exposures in this way in the country.
Environmental injustice refers to the disproportionate placement of sources such as pollution producing industry and landfills leading to greater exposure of low income and minority communities to environmental hazards due to unequal protection through laws, regulations, and enforcement. This injustice has been documented since the 1980s, starting with the work of the United Church of Christ in exposing how hazardous waste sites were disproportionately located in low income, minority communities. Recent studies have shown that these unequal impacts have continued, not only in regard to hazardous waste sites, but also in exposure to air pollution, water pollution, and more.
Recently, there has been an increasing focus on issues surrounding environmental injustice due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been shown to disproportionately affect people of color and individuals living in highly polluted areas. Environmental injustice is one facet of the racial injustice that has sparked national social justice protests across the country in recent months. Recognition that current federal environmental regulation is inadequate to protect all people has highlighted the need to legally address environmental justice on a state-level.
Pennsylvania is home to many environmental justice communities. The maps to the right show the locations of environmental justice communities in Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia County which is almost entirely made up of environmental justice communities.
Chester, a small city just south of Philadelphia, has been a focus of environmental justice activism since the 1990s and has been identified as one of the nation’s worst cases of environmental racism. The population in Chester is 74% Black, with 33% of the population living below the poverty line. Chester is home to an unprecedented number of industrial polluting facilities, including a trash incinerator, a sewage treatment plant, oil refineries, and more. There are 11 industries that emit carcinogens in Chester; some emitting tens of thousands of pounds of carcinogens every year.
A bill like the one passed in New Jersey, could prevent current industries in Chester from expanding and prevent additional industries from coming to Chester. The Chester Environmental Partnership (CEP), a faith-based organization run by Dr. Horace Strand, has been working with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the EPA for years to limit the amount of air pollution in Chester, but the organization’s efforts are often limited by current state permitting policies that do not take cumulative health impacts into consideration. If the DEP was required to assess additional health and environmental risks to overburdened communities when considering new industrial permits, then communities like Chester would be protected from new industrial development that would add to the pollution burden and the human health risk.
If New Jersey can protect its citizens from environmental injustice, then why can’t Pennsylvania?