When state Rep. Geraldo Reyes stands in his backyard in Waterbury, Connecticut, on a hot summer night, he can describe—and smell—exactly what is happening at a recycling plant less than a mile away.
The plant is one of almost 20 regulated facilities in Waterbury, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Reyes can also smell a waste treatment plant and see dust from a nearby asphalt company.
"In my mind, I am not an environmental engineer, and I'm not a pure environmentalist," he said. "I'm a person that's just saying, 'My God, when is enough, enough?'"
Based on his own experience, and a fight in Waterbury's South End over the permitting of a transfer station in 2018, Reyes has proposed strengthening Connecticut's 12-year-old environmental justice statute, which has proven largely ineffectual.
His legislation represents the latest effort in a fight for environmental justice that dates back to at least 1997, when Mark Mitchell, Hartford's former director of health, formed the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice to oppose a power plant in the city after he found Blacks and Hispanics living near waste treatment sites were suffering from higher rates of asthma.
Since then, not that much has changed.
A 2020 Connecticut Health Foundation study found that Black children and teenagers are nearly five and a half times more likely than whites to go to the emergency room because of asthma, and their Hispanic peers are four and a half times more likely.
Meanwhile, environmental justice communities are more susceptible to Covid-19, which is a respiratory disease, because of these high rates of asthma and other pulmonary illnesses, said Sharon Lewis, the current executive director of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice.
Even with Connecticut's environmental justice law, Mitchell said that many people in low-income neighborhoods don't know a major facility is being proposed nearby until after the construction starts.
"Whereas in middle class and wealthier communities, they tend to find out sooner," Mitchell said. "And if you find out about it, you're likely to have access to people who can tell you more about it. Such as engineers and lawyers who can explain what's being proposed and whether it's any threat to the neighborhood."
Mitigation Agreements Would be Required for New or Expanded Facilities
Reyes' reform legislation seeks to ensure that communities of color get the same level of notification as other neighborhoods. Approved in committee by a 27-1 vote in February before the Connecticut legislature halted its session due to the coronavirus pandemic, the bill would strengthen the notification requirement that's part of the permitting process for any facility that could adversely affect the environment and is located in specially designated environmental justice communities.
Such communities are defined in Connecticut law as a "distressed municipality" or a U.S. census block group in which at least 30 percent of the population has an income below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
Reyes said these communities, which consist of mainly Black and Hispanic residents, receive little protection from the environmental justice law, which was created in 2008 to monitor major sources of air pollution as defined by the federal Clean Air Act.
The law fails to require adequate notice be provided to communities near these facilities, Reyes said. It lists four suggested means by which a developer can advertise an informal public meeting, such as contacting neighborhood groups in the appropriate language or notifying local and state officials. The environmental justice bill would make all of these recommendations mandatory.
Sen. Joan Hartley, a resident of Waterbury who represents the western half of the city and worked on the bill with Reyes, said the legislation also requires that if a community is in a census block with at least 30 percent low income residents or in a municipality with five permitted affecting facilities that are subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act, the developer is required to hold a hearing and negotiate an environmental justice agreement to mitigate the effects of the new plant or expansion.
The bill also expands the list of issues addressed in these mitigation plans to consider health impacts on residents. Current law makes reference to traffic, parking and noise impacts, but the legislation would expand that list to include air quality, impacts on water, quality of life issues and asthma rates.
Reyes' zip code, 06706, is impacted by over 177,000 pounds of toxic chemicals a year, while 06702, in another part of Waterbury, has zero pounds, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory. He often receives reports from community members about terrible air quality in the South End.
His bill could be considered during three days of the special sessions that will be called in July and September to consider what members of the General Assembly's Black and Puerto Rican Caucus are calling an "Agenda for Equality," in the aftermath of national Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
The Black and Puerto Rican Caucus has called for action in six areas: voting rights, police accountability, economic justice, education and housing equity, and environmental justice.
Reyes predicts there is a 50-50 chance his bill will make the discussion this summer; a month ago, he believed the legislation wouldn't be considered before January 2021.
The environmental justice portion of the agenda includes updating existing environmental laws to address their impacts on civil rights, Reyes said. "I think that will speak to the increasing number of individuals over time who, unfortunately, have underlying health conditions attributed to poor air quality and the prevalence of pollution," he said.
Sen. Hartley believes that the special session is the only way the bill can be discussed this year before the 2020 election.
"It fits into the racial justice conversation," she said. "Waterbury's South End is a predominantly Hispanic community. It has the highest unemployment in the city. It has a very dense population. It's got a high immigrant population."
A Controversial Trash Transfer Station
Reyes' bill was inspired by a long fight over a trash transfer station in South Waterbury built by F&G LLC. While the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection ultimately approved a permit, Reyes and other activists' felt the facility should not have been approved because F&G had failed to properly communicate with the nearby residents, who mainly spoke Spanish.
Reyes said his opposition stemmed in part from a concern that trucks going to and from the transfer station would drive past users of a recreational walkway along Naugatuck River.
"Why would we spend millions of dollars on a river walkway, and then pollute it with trucks coming and going all day long to the transfer plant?" he said.
Jonathan Murray, director of operations for F&G, said the City of Waterbury hired an independent environmental engineer/odor expert and an independent traffic engineer to examine any potential impacts from the project.
"The results confirmed there would be no measurable impact at the greater number," he said, adding that the company provided all of the community notification and conducted all of the hearings required by the environmental justice law.
Edith Pestana, the administrator of the environmental justice program at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said that the firm fulfilled all the requirements and held all the meetings they were supposed to.
Still, she said that she and other officials at the department support Reyes' legislation to strengthen the environmental justice law.
"We're in full agreement and support anything that strengthens that law," she said.
'That's an Environmental Injustice'
Given the weaknesses in the law, Lewis has taken to bringing residents who live near facilities that are subject to the Clean Air Act to meet the companies' executives. She said the sessions increase the executives' awareness of the negative health effects residents experience from breathing their plants' emissions.
"People are sick, people can't go to school, people can't work," she said. "Neighborhoods are just devastated because of all the industry that comes. There's garbage everywhere. There's just not a good scene."
Lewis said she saw tears in the eyes of one of the executives because he couldn't believe his plant was so close to where people live.
Once, when she scheduled a meeting between residents and executives at an incinerator in Bridgeport, the parking lot was empty when she arrived, leading her to believe no one from the neighborhood had come.
"I went into the building, and the building was full because they walked," she said. "They didn't have to drive. That's how close they were.".
Meanwhile, there's an incinerator in Hartford that accepts trash from a third of the towns in Connecticut, she said. Nearby residents inhale pollutants 24 hours a day, seven days a week, she said, because the incinerator operates around the clock.
"That's an environmental injustice," she said. "Because it is not in the backyards of the folks in Avon or Farmington or West Hartford or Bloomfield or Windsor. They send their trash to Hartford to be burned. In fact, Connecticut burns more bits of trash than any state in the United States."