Local officials argue against Amazon deal at Newark airport

By: - February 16, 2022 7:10 am

Activists rally against a move to bring Amazon to the Newark airport. (Photo by Fran Baltzer for New Jersey Monitor)

A 25-year resident of Elizabeth and father to a 15-year-old boy, George Boada is aware of the risks of living in a city at the heart of the state’s economic hub.

But with a $432 million deal pending between Amazon and Newark airport, Boada worries the risk of getting sick due to toxic pollutants in the area will only increase.

“We want a strong, thriving community here. We’re good neighbors, and they’re showing they’re not going to be a good neighbor,” he said.

The tech behemoth is set to take out a 20-year lease for two cargo buildings at the airport. The multi-million dollar agreement was approved unanimously by the agency commissioners in August with a Nov. 1 start date. 

The lease has not been signed yet, for reasons still unknown, and little is known about the fine print of the agreement, said Sara Cullinane, executive director of Make the Road New Jersey. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the airport, has praised the deal, but Cullinane said she believes with community engagement and pressure from local officials, the whole plan can be stopped. 

“This is a huge problem. Why? Because it’s now the largest employer in New Jersey, and we know that when Amazon comes to town, they may be heralded as bringing in new jobs, but the reality is that they depress industry standards,” she said in a Zoom call with dozens of Elizabeth residents and community leaders Tuesday. 

Part of the deal includes a $150 million upfront payment and an additional $157 million in rent over 20 years. Amazon previously said it would invest roughly $125 million in renovating the cargo buildings and bring over 1,000 new jobs to the area.

Neither an Amazon spokesperson nor a Port Authority representative responded to requests for comment.

Port Authority said in October that there was a competitive public bidding process for the air cargo facilities and, responding to critics who say Amazon does not properly pay its workers, noted the airport’s minimum wage is set to increase to $19 an hour by 2023.

Critics say the Amazon hub would be catastrophic to Newark and nearby cities already dealing with pollution from Newark Liberty International Airport and the Elizabeth-Port Authority Marine Terminal. Roughly 15,000 trucks drive through cities like Irvington, Newark, and Elizabeth on any given day, and Newark residents are three times as likely to have asthma, according to an October 2021 study done by Hedge Clippers. 

The Amazon deal was approved with no traffic or environmental study, Cullinane said.

Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage argued against the deal in a letter to Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton, asking for environmental and noise assessments. He noted his previous concerns over the airport’s noise levels — residents’ windows shake from low-flying airplanes — and said the agency had ignored his previous complaints about the airport.

Cullinane said the Port Authority has ignored the cries of residents who are vehemently against the deal. 

State Sen. Joe Cryan (D-Union) and Bollwage said local officials can’t do much to stop the deal.

“We’ve got to work to see what we can do,” Cryan said. “Hopefully, we can help provide a voice. If we can’t change direction, we can certainly at least make the direction better for all.” 

The Hedge Clippers report alleged Amazon’s poor labor practices violate the Port Authority’s code of ethics for tenants and said the deal was approved through backroom deals with little transparency. 

“We need to really take this seriously and listen to community residents before we allow this hub to open,” said Yambeli Gomez, a Newark resident. “The community isn’t allowed to participate, and we’re the ones who are going to be the most hurt.”

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.