Stop polluters from choking Black lives | Editorial

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Black lives matter, whether we're talking about police or pollution (Mark Pynes | (Mark Pynes |

The kind of racial bias we’re up against in the criminal justice system is obvious. We can all watch the videos of George Floyd slowly being suffocated.

America’s legacy of pollution is more insidious, but it’s same principle at work: valuing the lives of poor people of color less than those of wealthier white folks.

It’s created a legacy of illness for Kim Gaddy, a fourth generation Newarker living in the city’s South Ward. She has asthma, as do all her children. Her parents had it, her brother did too, and her brother-in-law suffered a fatal asthma attack right here, at age 45.

“He came outside to try to get some air and he died on the porch,” she recalled.

It’s not hard to see why one in about every four kids in Newark has asthma. Bordering Gaddy’s local park is Frelinghuysen Ave, with a dirty Superfund site, about six recycling distribution centers and at least 10 businesses where trucks are repaired and idle all the time – not to mention the seven different highways that cut through.

Within a 7-block area are thousands of senior citizens and low income public housing residents, and smack dab in the middle of it all is a dialysis center, where the ailing go to get healthier – and where trucks rumble off a ramp to the local seaport. “It’s just like, what are we doing here?” Gaddy says.

Environmentalists often use words like “pristine” when fighting to keep out development, notes Ana Baptista, who grew up in Newark’s Ironbound, home to an incinerator that’s one of the biggest sources of air pollution in the county, known to emit purple smoke and an odor of burning hair.

But the end result is that pollution keeps piling up in all the same places. “Black lives do matter, you’ve got a lot of people talking about it, but we’ve been struggling to breathe and get fresh air for decades in our community,” Gaddy said.

Time to stop polluters from kneeling on the neck of communities like these. In response to their strong call for environmental justice, the Legislature is finally acting more courageously, and moving a bill that could help, rather than simply studying the problem again.

It would require the state to produce a list of “overburdened communities,” defined as either low income, with a high population of people of color or non-English speakers. In these places, your permit has to go through a special process.

Incinerators, gas plants, coal plants, landfills, sewage treatment plants and the like would need to do an environmental justice impact statement for the state, share it with the public and hold a hearing. The Department of Environmental Protection would have the power to deny it or require new safety conditions.

Take the trash incinerator in the Ironbound: It was not required to use the most modern technology to protect people with asthma. The state didn’t think it had the authority to mandate this, and the owner, Covanta, didn’t want to do it, so its permit got renewed without that requirement. A few years later, advocates convinced Covanta to do this on its own.

Under this bill, if the situation arises again, the state clearly would have the authority to require that. And Covanta, the largest incinerator company in the country, is supporting this legislation.

The impact would be far-reaching: Gov. Phil Murphy says more than 300 of the state’s 565 municipalities have at least one community that qualifies. That’s about 4.5 million residents, or roughly half the state’s population.

Critics charge that it will shut down development in communities that need it the most, but that’s not the point. It’s to push industry toward better behavior. The more these communities can actually push back, the more the rest of society will seriously weigh the costs and benefits.

Environmental protection must be for everyone. Black lives, too.

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