USA: Environmental Justice Issues Force Plant to Close

Publisher Name: 
Environment News Service

CAMDEN, New Jersey -- In a precedent setting environmental justice decision, a federal judge has halted operations at a New Jersey cement plant, saying toxic emissions from the facility would harm nearby residents and violate their civil rights. The plant was officially dedicated last March by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman, then New Jersey's governor.

On April 19, Federal District Court Judge Stephen Orlofsky granted a motion for a temporary injunction prohibiting St. Lawrence Cement Co. from beginning operations of its $50 million cement manufacturing facility in Camden, New Jersey.

The Court found that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had violated the civil rights of the African-American and Hispanic residents, who comprise 90 percent of the residents in the census tract where the SLC facility is located, when the agency issued a permit to the plant.

Orlofsky also said the state DEP failed to consider the cumulative threat posed by pollution from industrial sources already located in the primarily minority community.

"Much of what this case is about is what the NJDEP failed to consider," Orlofsky wrote. "It did not consider the pre-existing poor health of the residents of Waterfront South, nor did it consider the cumulative environmental burden already borne by this impoverished community. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the NJDEP failed to consider the racial and ethnic composition of the population of Waterfront South."

Orlofsky's 120 page ruling orders the plant, built by the St. Lawrence Cement Group of Montreal, to be closed for 30 days, during which the DEP must complete a full review of the air pollution permits issued to the facility. The closure is projected to cost St. Lawrence up to $200,000 a week.

Amy Collings, spokeswoman for the DEP, said the department will review the decision with the help of the state attorney general's office before deciding whether to appeal the decision.

St. Lawrence Cement said in a statement that it will appeal the judge's ruling.

"We are confident in our investment and proud of the integrity with which our company submitted to extensive environmental review, engaged in substantial outreach and responded to community concerns," said Patrick Doberge, president of St. Lawrence, in the statement.

The ruling came in a case filed February 14 by South Camden Citizens in Action, a community group formed by local residents who worried that the cement plant would increase their health risks by adding to the already polluted air in the region.

The Waterfront South neighborhood that houses the plant also contains the region's largest trash incinerator, a power plant, Camden County's sewage treatment plant, and two Superfund sites, including one contaminated with radioactive thorium.

The neighborhood's 2,100 residents earn a median household income of $15,000, less than one fourth of the $67,000 statewide median. About 90 percent of the residents are from racial or ethnic minorities.

Despite the pollution burden the region is already carrying, the DEP awarded St. Lawrence permits to emit 60 tons of air pollution each year. That amount does not include the emissions from an estimated 77,000 trucks expected to visit the plant each year.

In his ruling, Orlofsky said the state failed to follow its own rules about locating polluting industries in poor or minority neighborhoods. The DEP also violated permitting rules established under Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act.

"It is the Court's understanding that none of the policies or procedures referred to [by lawyers for the State] have been implemented," Orlofsky wrote. "Indeed, when asked if she had any understanding of New Jersey's Environmental Equity Program, Dr. [Iclal] Atay, chief of the NJDEP's Bureau of Air Quality Control and Hearing Officer for the SLC permit, stated that she had 'none.'"

Olga Pomar, the Camden Legal Services attorney who filed the suit on behalf of 10 Waterfront South residents, called the judge's opinion "unprecedented." Legal experts said the case is the first to overturn pollution permits on the basis of environmental justice principles, which state that polluting industries should not be overly represented in minority or poor communities.

The case could set a legal precedent requiring environmental regulators to consider the cumulative impacts of polluting industries, as well as the traffic they will draw, before issuing emissions permits.

In making his decision, Orlofsky cited a study that concluded that largely minority neighborhoods in New Jersey contain twice as many polluting industries as white communities.

"In the state of New Jersey there is 'a strong, highly statistically significant, and disturbing pattern of association between the racial and ethnic composition of communities, the number of EPA regulated facilities, and the number of facilities with air permits,'" said Orlofsky, quoting a passage from the study by Michel Gelobter.

Orlofsky's decision could reflect badly on the environmental record of EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, who attended the plant's groundbreaking in March 2000 as governor of New Jersey. In her new position, Whitman has touted her record of reducing pollutant emissions in the state.

Questions about her commitment to environmental justice were raised in her Senate confirmation hearings by Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. Whitman told the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee that no community should be "singled out" to be "dumped on."

But Reid said after the hearing that Whitman had been "very non-committal" on the environmental justice issue, and "gave herself lots of wiggle room."

EPA spokeswoman Mary Helen Cervantes said Whitman has not yet commented on the ruling.

AMP Section Name:Human Rights
  • 116 Human Rights