Throughout Campaign 2020, there has been much debate concerning systemic racism. The most widely discussed manifestations of systemic racism in America today are racist voter suppression and police brutality.
Environmental racism, however, is the manifestation of systemic racism which has done the most serious and long-lasting damage to its victims.
“Environmental racism” can best be defined as the disproportionate environmental harm to people of color resulting from governmental practices, including 1) the carrying out of governmental functions or 2) the permission of government given to private industry to carry out environmental practices that are deleterious to the health of the residents of abutting African-American neighborhoods. “Environmental justice” refers to policies that have as their objective the elimination of environmental racism.
The most prominent example of environmental racism in the course of governmental projects involves the siting of garbage disposal incinerator projects and municipal landfills near African -American neighborhoods, and conversely, the siting of parks and recreational areas near white neighborhoods. This is an all-too common practice in American cities.
The archetypal example of a governmental public servant environmental racist was Robert Moses, the autocrat who dominated New York City in the mid-20th Century. Full disclosure: I do have a personal animus towards Moses, resulting from his forcing my all-time favorite sports team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, to move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles as a result of his obstructing the Dodger plans to build a new stadium for themselves in Brooklyn.
But the more serious reason for my anathema to Moses was his construction of expressways like the Cross-Bronx Expressway, which cut through and destroyed African-American neighborhoods in the South Bronx. The health of the remaining African-American residents was adversely affected by the noise and deteriorated air quality resulting from the Expressway vehicular traffic.
Moses was the quintessential racist urban planner, and his indifference to the welfare of the citizens of color in the path of his expressway bulldozers was replicated by other urban planners throughout America. I always recommend to classes I teach on state and local government the Robert Caro biography of Moses, The Power Broker.
The environmental racism practiced by private businesses abutting African-American neighborhoods involves permission of government to both use toxic chemicals in the production process and release pollutants into the air and water. Environmental racism results in fossil-fueled power plants and refineries being disproportionately located in black neighborhoods, leading to poor air quality and in the present era putting African-Americans at higher risk for the Coronavirus.
This environmental harm to our citizens of color from toxics like lead results in damage to their genetic system, impairing not only their mental and intelligence functions but those of their offspring as well. This was conclusively documented by the renowned scientific journalist, Harriet Washington in her 2019 landmark book, A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and its Assault on the American Mind.
My service as United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 2 Regional Administrator in the administration of George W. Bush heightened my sensitivity to environmental racism. Among my activities in this regard were 1) the reopening of the cleanup of a Superfund toxic waste dump abutting a community of color, a cleanup that had never been properly completed; and 2) the closure of a filthy urban coal-fired plant whose air pollution was causing asthma in children.
Given New Jersey’s large African-American population and its substantial proportion residing in urban areas, environmental justice will continue to be a leading issue in New Jersey. And at long last, under the leadership of Governor Phil Murphy, New Jersey has enacted the strongest environmental justice law in the nation.
The legislation was sponsored in the State Senate by Democrats Troy Singleton and Loretta Weinberg and in the Assembly by Democrats John McKeon, Valerie Vainieri Huttle, and Britnee Timberlake. Senator Singleton was particularly instrumental in obtaining the cooperation of North and South Jersey legislators in securing passage.
This new law, signed on September 18, 2020 introduces a new term, “overburdened community,” defined as any census block group, as determined in accordance with the most recent United States Census, in which: (1) at least 35 percent of the households qualify as low-income households; (2) at least 40 percent of the residents identify as minority or as members of a State recognized tribal community; or (3) at least 40 percent of the households have limited English proficiency. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is required to publish and maintain on its Internet website a list of overburdened communities in the State.
Any applicant for a DEP permit for a facility in an overburdened community must submit a report that assesses the environmental impact on the community and how the proposal would add to existing pollution. The term “facility” includes new or expanded power plants, recycling facilities, incinerators, sludge operations, sewage treatment plants, landfills, or any other major source of potential pollution.
A hearing must be held on the application in the community in question, and a designated representative from the community is required to be present. The DEP, assessing community support, can deny an application if it finds the approval would “constitute an unreasonable risk to the health of the residents of the burdened community and to the environment in that community.” In reaching its judgment, the DEP should consider “the cumulative impacts” on public health or environmental risk, based on “combined past, present, and reasonably foreseeable” future pollution.
At long last, New Jersey has a procedure that protects communities of color from the predatory practices of polluting parties. Governor Murphy has achieved an historic legacy in both environmental protection and race relations. Yet that is not the only good environmental justice news for New Jersey.
With the election of President-elect Joe Biden, Governor Murphy now has a presidential partner well-disposed to extend legal and financial assistance to overburdened communities in their struggle to provide a safe and clean environment to their citizens. This environmental justice assistance is set forth in two component’s Biden’s climate change platform.
First is the establishment of an environmental and climate office at the US Justice Department. Having worked extensively with Justice Department attorneys on environmental justice matters, I can emphatically say that they are the best in the field.
Second, the initiative would entitle disadvantaged communities to receive 40 percent of all clean energy and infrastructure benefits. It is virtually a certainty that many New Jersey communities will qualify.
Indeed, there is justifiable hope that the Murphy-Biden relationship will have at its core an environmental justice partnership. This relationship will enable New Jersey to make landmark progress to combat the systemic racism of environmental racism, an effort that will provide both Biden and Murphy with an historic New Jersey legacy.
Alan Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.