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Environmental Justice Forum Shines Light on Urban Issues

Expert Speakers Discuss Inequality When it Comes to Environmental Issues
Nicky Sheats
Dr. Nicky Sheats spoke at an Environmental Justice event at the Alexander Library earlier this month. Jennifer Han

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ--Several speakers addressed a crowd of environmentalists, students, and journalists in the Alexander Library on March 10.

Heather Taylor of The Citizens Campaign spoke about the importance of media coverage for environmental justice issues.  Her group focuses on five powerful roles that any citizen can take in their community: Citizen Legislator, Citizen Journalist, Board or Commission member, Political Navigator, and Political Party Committee Member.

Keynote speaker Ana Baptista, former Director of Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark called environmental injustice "America's dirty little secret."

"It's a way to hide a lot of the byproducts of our society and to shove them away out into the other spaces where people don't live," Baptista told the crowd.

"By hiding those places, making believe those places don't exist and we don't have to confront what those places tell us about the inner quality of our society."

Baptista was one of the leading advocates against the construction of a new natural gas power plant in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark.

"The definition of environmental justice is when people realize their highest potential, personal empowerment, and democratic decision-making," Baptista said.

"The realization of environmental justice is that we really face the structural issues that cause inequality in our society."

Randall Solomon, co-founder of Sustainable Jersey said, "People who tend to have money and power, they will do what benefits them. The only way that the benefits of the democracy manifest is if a large number of people in the citizenry know what's going on and have some capacity to engage on those issues."

Solomon said public information was critical to making changes: "If people know about those issues and cumulative impacts, they are much more likely to get riled up about it and act on it."

Solomon said that the dominance of out-of-state television stations hurt the quality of news coverage in the Garden State.

"Major television coverage is always the secondary to New York City and Philadelphia.  Since, at the local level... the news media, in general, is transforming, we have much less local news than we used to."

"Citizens Campaign, among many others, are really trying to push to figure out what is the new way to advance citizen journalism, so that a lot of these issues that we've been talking about have the ability to be out in the communities, so that we can educate people about them and democracy can function," Solomon said.

Dr. Nicky Sheats, Director of Center for the Urban Environment said that small particles of pollution in the biggest danger to public health in urban areas.

"The reason is that size is important is that these particles are small enough to penetrate deep into a person's lungs and kill them," said Sheats.

A report cited by Sheats estimates that particles cause 200,000 premature deaths in the United States every year.

"The sources are anything that burns: combustion.  That's where these particles are coming from," he said.

Sheats said that boilers, burning leaves, cars, trucks, and buses as sources of the particles in urban areas.  Diesel engines produce more of the particulate matter than cars.

Andy Kricun, Executive Director of Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority talked about why environmental justice should be essential for any clean water utility and economic distressed community.

"The issue of Camden is that it is one of the poorest cities in the nation. Our wastewater treatment plant is the third largest plant in the country."

Kricun said, "The wastewater treament plant provides services of 500,000 customers and is located 100 yards away from a residential community of about 2,000 people."

His agency was faced with a challenge after "numerous odor complaints from neighboring residents" force the authority to make major changes.

"First what we did was changing institutional culture by diplomatic significant odor prevention measures. We closed a very odorous composting facility," he said.

The Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority installed over $50 million on odor control systems to minimize odors and also composed a zero-tolerance policy with respect to odors, Kricun said.

They also implemented a decreased "host community benefit rate" for Camden City residence, recognizing that they have an impact on the community.  The rate is approximately 35% lower than the other 36 communities in Camden County.

Kricun helped form Camden SMART (Stormwater Management and Resource Training) with the goal of reducing flooding in the city.

He told the crowd that Camden City has poor infrastructure and, almost every time it rains, the sewage backs up into the streets, parks, and homes of people.

Robert Spiegel, Executive Director of Edison Wetlands Association said, "Environmental justice is not just an idea, but also an executive order that was done 20 years ago," referring to an order signed by former President  Bill Clinton almost 20 years to the day before the event was held in Alexander Library.

Spiegel, a veteran of the local environmental movement, said Clinton recognized that across the country, environmental justice and justice for poor communities fell far short of the vision that our the founding fathers have with freedom and equity for everyone.

"It is only when the communities fight when they work collaboratively with other groups, and when they demand environmental justice, they will get it," Spiegel said.