In the shadow of Route 280, which cuts across Newark like an ugly scar, sits the playground of McKinley Elementary, where kids play within earshot of roaring trains and buses and within breathing distance of fumes from truck and car traffic.
“This is our reality, you have pre-K students through eighth grade at this school, 100 autistic children and each and every day the quality of their lives is impacted by the pollution that spurs in this community,” said Kim Gaddy, an environmental justice organizer with Clean Water Action. “You talk about the diesel emissions and you could hear the trucks roaring right behind us, so when our children are out here playing on these playgrounds, they are breathing in these toxic fumes.”
It’s not a surprise says Sen. Cory Booker, a former Newark mayor, that the impact of these environmental challenges is felt most severely in poor communities and communities of color, like Newark. Monday, the senator announced the Environmental Justice Act of 2017, calling it part of a modern-day civil rights movement.
“Civil rights have to include fundamentally, the right to breathe your air, the right to have plant tomatoes in your soil. Civil rights is a right to drink your water. So this bill gives people the right to take action, to sue their government, if necessary. It gives them the rights to take civil rights claims to make sure they can find justice,” said the senator.
Booker’s bill would codify executive orders, including a 1994 executive order that protects low-income and minority communities from government projects that negatively impact their environment, and it requires government to take into consideration the cumulative impact of years of pollution from existing operations when it comes time to renew permits. In Newark, you see the cumulative impact every day, from Vailsburg in the west, to the Ironbound in the east.
“Here in Newark, we breathe nitrous oxide, lead, dioxin, particulate matter and a host of other toxic chemicals,” noted Melissa Miles, the environmental justice organizer for the Ironbound Community Corporation. “We live with toe-curling smells from the sewage treatment plant and other toxic industries. We suffer from the health impacts of the diesel-burning trucks that serve these facilities and travel through our communities at the rate of hundreds an hour,“ said Miles.
Booker’s bill has no Republican co-sponsors though, and in the calcified corners of Congress, its fate seems predestined. But, despite Monday’s fanfare and selfies, Booker insists that the ideals in the bill are just, and he said that maybe the next Congress will see what the current Congress may be missing.