Protesters outside a swearing-in ceremony in January urge Murphy to stop the vote to construct a new power plant in Newark. (Credit Matt Smith)
Environmental activists and community organizers are urging Gov. Phil Murphy to halt plans to construct a gas-fired power plant in the Ironbound, a minority-majority community in Newark already dealing with pollution from three other nearby power plants.
The Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission canceled a vote scheduled for Thursday on a contract to build the plant, which the agency says would keep its sewage and wastewater treatment facility running during emergencies. In 2012, the facility was forced offline for 72 hours because of Hurricane Sandy.
Opponents argue the power plant flies in the face of Murphy’s commitment to making New Jersey a leader in environmental justice and accuse him of hypocrisy for allowing a power plant they say will contribute to climate change and worsening weather events like Sandy.
“There’s a lot of irony in saying that climate change is getting worse and we need to make New Jersey better, so let’s build another fossil fuel plant to fight climate change,” said Maria Lopez-Nunez, an Ironbound resident and director of environmental justice and community development at the Ironbound Community Corporation.
Lopez-Nunez and dozens of other religious, civil rights, and environmental activists penned a letter to Murphy urging him to block the project. But they haven’t heard back from the governor, who touted the state’s journey toward green energy during an announcement on offshore wind energy Wednesday.
And opponents of the project say this flies in the face of Murphy’s landmark environmental justice law requiring all new facilities to consider the health impacts on underserved communities, which is expected to go into effect in late 2022.
Murphy spokeswoman Alex Altman said Murphy asked PVSC to “pause their process” and postpone Thursday’s vote so the project can undergo a more thorough environmental review and robust public engagement process.
“While the proposed back-up generation put forth by the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission is meant to provide a critical climate resilience solution, it is imperative that the project adheres to the administration’s core values on environmental justice,” Altman said.
The PVSC operates the Newark Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant, which serves more than 1.5 million residents across Essex, Hudson, Bergen, and Passaic counties. It’s the largest consumer of electricity in the state, and the fifth-largest facility of its kind in the country.
After Hurricane Sandy struck the region in October 2012, more than 900 billion gallons of raw sewage were dumped in Newark Bay because the treatment center was offline for days. It took about three weeks for the plant to get back its full power.
The planned new facility, known as the Standby Power Generation Facility, would be reserved for emergency situations like storms or mass power outages, or for when demand for electricity jumps. The proposed site would use three 28-megawatt turbines, though it takes just 34 megawatts to run the plant, according to a fact sheet sent by PVSC spokesman Doug Scancarella in response to questions.
The plant would run once monthly for testing, maintenance, and demand response, unless an event requires its actual use, the document states. The PVSC says it does not intend to use the facility on a daily basis.
Lopez-Nunez and other advocates worry the PVSC’s position — she called it a “song and dance” — will change once the facility is constructed.
“They created this impression that they were genuinely interested in a solution acceptable to the community. They totally led us on. All of a sudden, there’s this meeting scheduled,” said Matt Smith, director of Food and Water Watch.
Lopez-Nunez pointed to the agency’s move to begin construction on the $180 million project before finalizing all the proper permits, including an air permit from the DEP. The PVSC claims the permit has already been deemed by the state Department of Environmental Protection to be complete, and is just waiting on a review of technical specifications.
Environmental advocates also wonder why the plant is not looking toward sources of renewable energy. The plant could emit 8 tons of carbon monoxide and 4.6 tons of particulate matter into the air annually, according to PVSC documents.
Jersey City, Hoboken, Newark, and Livingston’s governing bodies have passed resolutions urging Murphy to seek a renewable energy replacement.
“We already have so much industrial pollution in our neighborhood. Now, to be rushing it, it goes against the values that this administration and this country are moving toward,” Lopez-Nunez said.
Historically, Newark residents have been victims of environmental racism, three Mount Sinai doctors said in a letter to Murphy laying out the disproportionate harm the plant would contribute to the community.
Not only does the city see high levels of pollution due to its proximity to an international airport, major highways, and truck and train traffic, but the city has been plagued with health inequalities, high levels of childhood asthma, and pollutants in the drinking water.
These issues are the reason Murphy came to Newark in 2020 to sign the environmental justice law, aimed at protecting vulnerable communities from pollution. The law requires the DEP to consider the impact pollution at newly constructed facilities will have on communities and allows the department to reject permits if a project could harm surrounding neighborhoods.
Although the law hasn’t gone into effect yet, permits for an NJ Transit project last year to construct a gas-powered power plant along the Hackensack River in the Meadowlands were revoked after Murphy said the plan warranted further review “consistent with the clean energy commitments that have been advanced by my administration.”
“Since taking office in 2018, Governor Murphy has made clear that New Jersey’s overburdened communities will no longer be a dumping ground for harmful pollutants,” Altman said.
Lopez-Nunez worries the new law’s impending effective date is the reason PVSC suddenly planned to vote on the project (she said for 10 years there’s been no movement on it).
If the law were in effect now, she said, PVSC’s permits would be denied.
“There’s another energy center across the street from this project, and the community fought it too, but Governor Christie did it, so that’s his legacy in Newark. Now it seems like Murphy wants to include a fourth project and add to the legacy,” she said.
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