NEWARK, NJ — When Maria Lopez-Nunez, director of environmental justice and community development for Ironbound Community Corporation, rattles off all the industrial entities impacting the quality of life for residents in her community, she needs both hands to count. 

Among the culprits: a garbage incinerator, the largest sewage waste treatment plant in New Jersey, two power plants, a fat rendering plant that produces a putrid odor, warehouses and plastic factories. Lopez-Nunez would be remiss to forget one of the largest Superfund sites in the nation, a stretch of Agent Orange-contaminated sediment that calls Newark’s portion of the Passaic River home.

The totality of these facilities’ pollutant output has created a scourge of asthma, lead poisoning and other health conditions for Newarkers, she said, particularly for children growing up in a city with such a massive industrial sector. 

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“As a kid, growing up next to a textile factory was just normal,” she said. “Once I got to other places in New Jersey, I realized that not everyone has asthma or friends with asthma, not everyone has all these underlying health conditions.”

But as of Friday, the days of industrial facilities overburdening 310 identified low-income communities of color, including Newark, will be no more. Dignitaries including U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) convened in Raymond Brown Park to sign a groundbreaking environmental justice bill (NJ S232 (20R)) that allows the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to deny permits for projects determined to pose environmental health risks to residents. 

The state legislation is the first of its kind to be signed into law, inspired by Booker’s sweeping federal bill that seeks to codify and expand a 1994 executive order on environmental justice, among other measures. State Senators Loretta Weinberg and Teresa Ruiz and Assembly members John McKeon, Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Britnee Timerlake also put their sponsorship behind the bill. 

“There was a time in Newark where our children were being saddled with lead poisoning, and the number one reason they were missing schools was because of air quality issues and respiratory concerns,” Booker said. “The story of Newark is a story of corporations engaging in activities that are undermining the treasures of our community.” 

Organizers and lawmakers in Newark and Essex County have pushed for measures to address environmental injustice in New Jersey’s most vulnerable municipalities every year since 2008, according to Troy Singleton, one of NJ S232 (20R)’s primary sponsors. This year, the alarmingly disproportionate toll of the pandemic on communities of color and global public outcry against systemic racism propelled the bill to victory. 

“I think COVID particularly has really exaggerated how much our communities have health conditions, and I think of all the toxic facilities in our communities — it all starts to paint a really grim picture,” Lopez-Nunez said. “I think this bill really helps start to move the wheels of justice.”

According to NJDEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe, the law requires her agency to evaluate facilities looking to establish themselves, expand or renew a permit in a community deemed “overburdened” based on how it may impact the health of residents. Communities are considered overburdened if 35% of the households are low-income, at least 40% of the residents identify as minority or at least 40% of the households have limited English proficiency.

The new law applies to incinerators and sludge combustors, sewage treatment plants, recycling and solid waste facilities, medical waste incinerators, landfills and facilities that contribute to excessive air pollution. While opponents of the law argue that the new measures will drive out development during a time when the state needs it most, its champions beg to differ. McKeon said the set of requirements will be a job producer and benefit the economy. 

In 2016, Newark made history by becoming the first municipality to pass a “cumulative impact” ordinance requiring developers seeking permits to inform the city of potential environmental risks. Mayor Ras Baraka said the counties of Essex and Union are in the 99th percentile for air quality concerns compared to the rest of the U.S.

“This historic legislation will show the rest of the country how to ensure that communities are protected,” he said. “We know the pollution problem is not evenly distributed, and that we bear that burden in cities like Newark more than other municipalities in this area.” 

Gov. Phil Murphy said the law is more than just bureaucratic reform, and its steadfast advocates are celebrating it as a monumental win. 

“This law will bring with it a sea change in how government looks at its ultimate responsibilities to ensure the rights of its people to clean air and clean water, to a better quality of life, to inclusive economic opportunity and to a better life, period,” he said. “It is important to this moment that we send the message that no longer will our economically disadvantaged areas of our state be dumping grounds.” 

Now that the wheel of justice is greased, activists in Newark who signed the bill alongside lawmakers on Friday said they can finally move into the rule-making stage of their efforts to hold industry accountable. Kim Gaddy, the environmental justice organizer for Clean Water Action of New Jersey, said it was only the beginning to the end of corporations in the state using urban communities as sacrifice zones. 

“I’m so thankful that each and every one of you is here, but I will be calling you,” she said, addressing lawmakers. “Because now we have to roll up our sleeves and make sure the regulations have the teeth that we need to allow us to breathe clean air throughout the state of New Jersey” 

Lopez-Nunez said that while she’s celebrating the historic milestone after 12 long years of fighting, she’s not putting her gloves away yet, and neither should lawmakers or her fellow organizers. 

“I’m calling on all of us to be accountable, in 12 years we’ve had a new energy plant and natural gas plant in our neighborhood, warehouses and a lot of other toxic stuff,” she said. “We need to work harder as leaders, as activists, as organizers, as elected officials. We need to lead with our hearts and center the community.”