Power plant paused by NJ governor in minority area is back
NEWARK — A New Jersey sewage treatment plant in a predominantly minority neighborhood is pressing forward with its plan to build a gas-fired power plant, three months after the state's governor paused the proposal to make sure it does not overly burden the already polluted community.
In January, Gov. Phil Murphy directed the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission to pause a plan to build the largest part of a $180 million backup power plant, designed to kick in when the main facility is knocked offline.
The governor acted after residents of Newark's Ironbound section complained that they already bear the brunt of numerous sources of air and other pollution in the state's largest city.
But the commission has applied to the state Department of Environmental Protection to modify its air quality permit, and plans to host a public hearing on the plan next week. The permit is the last major approval the project would need, the DEP said.
Residents and activists spoke Wednesday in a community garden amid the industrialized area, where dozens of passing garbage trucks and tractor-trailers made their point for them: As each vehicle passed, choking exhaust that burned the nose and throat was left in its wake. And the roar of jets passing low overhead on their approach to Newark Liberty International Airport shook the ground and drowned out conversations.
“We deserve clean air,” said 9-year-old Destiny Tate. “It stinks so much. We can't live like this anymore.”
This is all happening while an environmental justice law that Murphy, a Democrat, signed in 2020 still has not taken full effect; the state is still writing regulations concerning the law.
Christi Peace, a spokesperson for the governor, said his administration “remains committed to avoiding or reducing factors that could contribute to existing public health and environmental stressors in overburdened communities across our state.”
Nicky Sheats, director of Kean University's Center for the Urban Environment, said similar conflicts are playing out across the country.
“In neighborhoods of color, there frequently are multiple sources of pollution spewing multiple impacts,” he said. “The law is supposed to protect communities like the one we are standing in now.”
A spokesperson for the commission did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. But in a statement on its website, the commission says it is complying with the intent of the environmental justice law.
The commission says it has taken several steps to change the proposal since the governor intervened in January.
It has said it will incorporate “state of the art” pollution controls that go beyond the state's own requirements.
The commission says it will only run the backup power plant during emergencies and for basic maintenance only; in a year in which no emergencies occur, the backup plant would operate for a maximum of 12 days a year.
The commission also has dropped a plan to use the backup power plant on days of high electric demand, which it says will eliminate 700 hours of operation. It also says it plans to install “all of the technically feasible solar power it can.”
It also plans to convert from natural gas to cleaner fuels as soon as that becomes feasible, including the use of battery power.
The backup power plant is designed to avoid a repeat of what happened during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, when nearly a billion gallons of raw sewage flowed into nearby waterways when the plant went offline due to a lack of electricity.
The commission says that without the backup plant, the streets of the Ironbound section could be awash in raw sewage during a serious storm that knocks out power to the sewage treatment facility.
Such an outcome would be “catastrophic and unacceptable,” the commission’s executive director, Gregory Tramontozzi, said in January.
Residents say there are already three other power plants operating in or near the Ironbound section, named for the railroad tracks that surround it on three sides.
Alexandra Nunez, a Newark social worker, said children in the Ironbound are suffering from the multiple sources of pollution there.
“I have heard students telling me there are bad smells in their neighborhood and that ruins their days because they can't go outside and play,” she said.
Robert Laumbach, a public health expert at Rutgers University, said the cumulative effects of pollution in places like the Ironbound get constantly worse over time.
“In certain communities that are already overburdened, any increase in air pollution is too much,” he said.