Power lines and a smoke stack are located around a large brick building, underneith a bright blue sky.
This waste-to-energy facility in Hartford closed last year. Credit: ilirjan rrumbullaku / flickr

In the ongoing negotiations over how best to strengthen Connecticut’s 15-year-old environmental justice law, one debate revolves around two words: may vs. shall. 

A bill backed by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, or DEEP, would give that agency, as well as the Connecticut Siting Council, the authority to deny or place conditions on a permit for polluting facilities in environmental justice communities if the cumulative environmental and health impacts there exceed a threshold higher than impacts borne by other communities.

Or, in short, the agency “may” deny or place conditions on a permit in such situations. Neither authority may consider cumulative impacts when issuing permits under existing law.

Environmental advocates like Rep. Geraldo Reyes Jr. (D-Waterbury), who lives in that city’s heavily impacted South End, welcome the bill and argue it should go a step further. They want the “may” changed to a “shall.”

Reyes said communities like his suffer high asthma rates and other health impacts because of the injustices done in the past. And he wants Connecticut political leaders to stop talking about their support for environmental justice and take meaningful action.

“I’ve been fighting for Connecticut to be a leader in environmental justice,” he said. “I want the strongest language possible. We can be the model.”

Reyes sits on the Environment Committee, which last week passed the “may” version of the bill with bipartisan support. In addition to granting DEEP and the council greater authority to deny certain permits in distressed municipalities, the bill expands the kinds of facilities that must comply, and adds accountability measures.

Committee co-chair Sen. Rick Lopes (D-Berlin, Farmington, New Britain), who is the Senate deputy majority leader, made it clear that negotiations over the language would continue before the measure is put out for a floor vote.

That’s because while Reyes and dozens of citizens who submitted written testimony want stronger language, several lawmakers on the committee said they are concerned the bill goes too far. They said adding to the list of requirements for permitting in environmental justice communities might deter some existing companies from making positive improvements.

“You could have a facility that would have to go to the siting council for a permit to improve their facility that could, in fact, be environmentally beneficial,” said Sen. Stephen Harding, a Republican ranking member of the committee, in an interview. “I just want to make sure that the obstacles being put in place, some of which are good, are not getting in the way of or disincentivizing facilities from improving.”

Harding said he’d like to see an expedited permitting process for projects that are going to improve environmental quality.

More projects would face scrutiny

Some also expressed concerns that the bill expands the list of “affecting facilities” that trigger the law. It seeks requirements for those seeking a permit to discharge wastewater from a combined sewer system that transports both stormwater and sewage. Those systems currently exist in Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport and Norwich, all environmental justice communities, according to DEEP. 

It also adds solid waste transfer stations, resource recovery facilities, chemical recycling facilities, and fossil fuel terminals.

The existing list of affecting facilities includes, among others, electric generating facilities with a capacity over 10 MW, sludge and solid waste incinerators and combustors, and medical waste incinerators.

Asked about the objections, DEEP spokesperson Paul Copleman said the agency stands by the bill. 

“Both the public benefits and the burdens” associated with these operations “should be borne equitably,” he said. “Consequently, the expansion of any of these facilities or the construction of new ones in or near environmental justice communities should consider the cumulative environmental and public health stressors that residents of host communities will bear, and mitigation of those stressors, where possible.”

The bill requires applicants for a new or expanded permit, or siting approval, to first file an assessment of potential “environmental and public health stressors” associated with the project. DEEP would write regulations outlining the method for measuring and identifying those stressors.

Applicants are already required to file a plan for facilitating “meaningful public participation” in the regulatory process. The bill calls for submission of a subsequent participation report that includes all written comments received from the public, responses to any concerns or questions, and a video of the required public meeting.

‘Nothing stopping them’ from building elsewhere

The Connecticut Business and Industry Association opposes the measure, saying in written testimony that the bill amounts to “just another bureaucratic barrier for many industries.” 

But Reyes, who has a long background in manufacturing, rejects that argument, saying businesses can avoid the more stringent requirements by putting their facility elsewhere. 

“I believe there are very powerful companies and lobbyists that don’t want to see this type of language because they want to continue the practices that have made them money over time,” he said. “But at the end of the day, there is nothing stopping them from putting anything in a community that is not an environmental justice community.”

He credited DEEP with working diligently with environmental justice advocates this year on the bill — something that has not been the case in the past, he said.

Alex Rodriguez, environmental justice specialist for Save the Sound, a strong supporter of the bill, said he understands some of the concerns around mandating the denial of permits for affecting facilities in overly stressed environmental justice communities. But if “we’re at the end of the line in negotiating ‘may’ to ‘shall,’” Rodriguez said, lawmakers should at the very least keep the existing language.

“That’s where I draw the line,” he said. “It’s on DEEP now to bring in the potentially affected parties to discuss a path forward. We are very close to an important new statute here.”

Copleman said the agency is “eager” to work with lawmakers on the bill. However, he said, “we believe that these concerns can be addressed without removing the language giving DEEP the authority to consider cumulative impacts.”

Far from deterring environmentally beneficial improvements, the bill creates the opportunity to “maximize the environmental benefits” of an expanded or new facility, he said.

Twenty-five communities around the state qualify as environmental justice communities, under the statutory definition. They are host to 10 of the state’s 22 electricity generating facilities, four of six sewage sludge incinerators, two of four solid waste incinerators, the state’s only ash landfill, and most of the state’s bulk petroleum product storage and distribution facilities, according to DEEP. 

Waterbury’s South End has six affecting facilities, including a garbage operation that was allowed to expand five years ago despite strong community opposition. 

“You name it, we have it down here in the South End,” Reyes said. “I guess one day I woke up and said, my God, when is it enough?”

Lisa is a longtime journalist and native New Englander based in Connecticut. She writes regularly about housing, development and business for the New York Times. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, CNBC.com, Next City and many other publications. She is the author of "Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice and Real Estate." Lisa covers New England.