HARTFORD — Lawmakers in the special session passed a bill that would revise the state’s environmental justice regulations, and require facilities that impact the environment to improve communication with the public and provide services or funding that would mitigate any environmental effects on the surrounding community.
The bill passed the House on Wednesday 139-5 and the Senate on Thursday 35-1.
State Rep. Geraldo Reyes, D-Waterbury, who co-authored the bill, told Connecticut Examiner that the changes came out of an experience he had in his home district of Waterbury, when an F&G Transfer Plant decided to expand its activities. Although large numbers of the public came out in protest against the expansion, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection issued the permit anyway. When the community appealed the decision, they lost the appeal as well.
After that incident, Reyes began working to strengthen the existing environmental justice bill, which was enacted in 2008.
The bill is meant to increase opportunities for the community to voice opinions by requiring the owners of these sites to actively publicize hearings in so-called “environmental justice communities” — communities located in census blocks where 30 percent of the population are low-income individuals, or communities defined as “distressed.”
“There are communities across our beautiful state that are adversely affected by polluting facilities,” said State Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, chairman of the Environment Committee. “We have a responsibility to protect those communities, their home and their health.”
According to the Department of Economic and Community Development, this bill would affect 48 municipalities that range from large cities to small towns.
Site owners will now be required to place signs on targeted properties and in surrounding area advertising a hearing, send written notifications to neighborhood residents and alert elected officials. If they fail to take these steps, the owners will not receive needed permits from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to develop the site.
“This whole bill is about transparency and accountability,” said Reyes.
Towns with more than five sites that are designated “affecting facilities” are required to make an agreement with the owner or developer of any additional sites, in which the owner will agree to fund ways to lessen the environmental impact of the development.
These facilities include electric generating facilities with capacities above six megawatts, sewage plants with a capacity of more than 50 million gallons per day, waste incinerators, processing facilities or recycling facilities with a monthly volume of more than 25 tons, landfills, medical waste incinerators and any major source of air pollution.
The bill goes into effect on November 1, but will not constrain applicants that have filed permits before that date.
The bill adds wellness clinics, asthma screening, air monitoring and watercourse studies to the list of ways that property developers can account for the effects that pollution has on the local community.
State Rep. David Michel, D-Stamford, said the bill was “a great step in helping protect our most vulnerable communities.” But Michel also said that he believed existing legislation should be further scrutinized, saying he was concerned that the way the law was written could leave his community vulnerable, if new residents from New York move into his community and lift it out of the 30 percent low-income bracket.
Others argued that the bill should have waited until the January session to be brought before the legislature.
State Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, ranking member of the Environmental Committee, told CT Examiner that he was concerned that the bill allowed towns to negotiate the financial value of a community’s quality of life.
He also said that if DEEP regulations for these facilities change, towns may be able to use the need for a new permit to renegotiate with the companies, asking for more money or benefits, even if the new regulations would create a positive change for the environment. He thinks this could create incentives for facilities to refrain from making changes that might reduce environmental impacts.
Miner said the bill needed further discussion. He said he wanted to get more input from municipalities and to work with DEEP and the Department of Public Health to create different methods for permitting.
Cohen told CT Examiner that she thought the bill should be passed now. She said that many people have learned about the adverse health effects that pollution can cause in local communities, such as asthma and high cancer rates.
“It’s shocking, and we have a responsibility to the residents,” said Cohen.
Cohen also said that she wished the bill had done more to protect economically disadvantaged communities. She said she would have liked to see the bill establish a firm cap on the number of facilities that could be located in any particular area.
Lori Brown, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters, a bipartisan advocacy group for environmental issues, said she was in full support of the bill.
“I think it’s brilliant,” she said of the bill. “And it’s not over the top.”
Brown said that if a developer was going to invest in a site that could expose a community to pollution, the individual had an “obligation” to do whatever he or she could to mitigate the effects that their development had on the community.
“It’s important for the public to really have a say, [to] really be listened to.” she said. “It’s part of a larger movement to remove these problems.”