To the editor:
In a stunning breakthrough for environmental justice in New York City and New York state, a robust coalition of grassroots environmental justice groups have achieved the nearly unthinkable. On Jan. 5, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed into law a bill designed to begin to protect low-income communities and communities of color such as the South Bronx from the cumulative effects of decades of racist siting of polluting facilities.
A similar, slightly weaker bill was passed in New Jersey in 2020, the first of its kind in the country to require the evaluation of the environmental and public health impacts of polluting facilities on overburdened communities.
Now, New York has followed suit. The Cumulative Impacts Law requires agencies to prepare an existing burden report as part of the application process to site-polluting facilities in neighborhoods defined as environmental justice communities by the Environmental Protection Agency. This report must evaluate the already existing cumulative impact load of polluting facilities on a community, and consider the additional harm that would ensue should a permit be granted for a new facility.
If the report finds the new facility would contribute to the existing burden of pollution, a permit can be denied.
We Act for Environmental Justice — a decades-old, Harlem-based organization and a leader of the grassroots coalition that engineered the historic victory in Albany — points to the long-established custom of government agencies and industries availing themselves of racist zoning laws and lack of political power to place polluting facilities in low-income and people of color communities.
In 1987, a seminal study led by Dr. Robert Bullard found that Black/African American communities have the highest percentage of toxic facilities. Twenty years later, the same group published a new study finding that nothing had been done to address environmental racism.
“What we’re doing here is saying, ‘Enough,’” said Sonal Jessel, We Act’s policy director. “It’s time to make sure that the communities that have been dealing with this vulnerability for so long have some protection embedded in the law.”
Arif Ullah, executive director of South Bronx Unite, applauded passage of the bill in New York.
“It’s a huge victory. New York City has one of the country’s highest rates of hospitalizations and deaths due to asthma among children and young adults.
“People in the South Bronx have been hit particularly hard by air pollution from gas-burning peaker power plants — which operate when electricity demand is high — garbage transfer stations, warehouses, and major expressways. The legislation means that we will begin to see the end of the viciously racist practice of siting polluting facilities in communities like ours.”
The We Act-led coalition — which includes Riverdale-based Bronx Climate Justice North and North Bronx Racial Justice — will now be watching closely to see how the state environmental conservation department will craft rules incorporating the Cumulative Impacts Law into their procedures. How the agency interprets what a “disproportionate and inequitable pollution burden” is will be critical.
“If you want to do a project or proposed action in these communities, you’re going to have to damn well prove that it’s not going to exacerbate existing harms,” said Anthony Rogers-Wright, an environmental justice director for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.
While taking a moment to celebrate Gov. Hochul’s signature on the landmark legislation, coalition members do so, said Rogers-Wright, “with the understanding that this is just the beginning.”
In 2023, the coalition will press for passage of a crucial companion bill ensuring public participation in polluting facility siting decisions, and the strongest possible implementation of the new Cumulative Impacts Law.
In the face of the intensifying climate crisis, environmental justice communities must finally be protected so that they no longer bear disproportionate burdens associated with global warming and exposure to pollution.
The author is coordinator of Bronx Climate Justice North and North Bronx Racial Justice