Newark residents and health care providers held a news conference Wednesday, April 20, 2022, to protest a planned new power plant in Newark. (Sophie Nieto-Muñoz | New Jersey Monitor)
At 9 years old, Destiny Tate is already worried about the over-pollution of Newark. She has friends in her third-grade classes who have asthma and said the air stinks when she leaves her Ironbound home in the morning.
“A lot of people want to go outside and enjoy being outside and smell the nice air but when we go out, it’s stinky,” said Tate, describing what it’s like to walk home from school and play outside during recess. “All the trucks are making pollution, and this will make it worse.”
She spoke up during a news conference Wednesday attended by residents and doctors fighting the impending approval of an 84-megawatt power plant in Newark’s East Ward. They have urged local and state leaders to stop the planned power plant, citing health care concerns over exposing Black and brown communities to worsening air quality. If approved, it would be the fourth methane gas-fired power plant in the Ironbound section of Newark.
Gov. Phil Murphy paused the vote on the air permit approval for the power plant in January and ordered an environmental review, but it’s unclear what that review entails. The Department of Environmental Protection will hold a public hearing on Tuesday.
The Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission (PVSC), which serves one in six New Jersey residents, says they’d run the plant 12 days a year — only during emergencies, like back-up power during storms, and for maintenance. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the facility lost power for three days, pouring 840 million gallons of raw sewage into the Passaic River and Newark Bay. Officials say they need to build another power plant to avoid that from happening again as storms worsen.
Opponents say the plans to build the power plant contradict Gov. Phil Murphy’s belief in progressive environmental justice. On Wednesday, they pointed to a landmark bill he signed into law in 2020 that would allow the Department of Environmental Protection to reject permits for power plants and other buildings in areas already overburdened by pollution.
Those rules still are being written, and it’s unclear when they’ll be done — meaning residents can’t count on the 2020 law to stop the construction of the planned power plant. State environmental officials said the plant is subject to a 2021 administrative order, which includes requiring PVSC officials to submit a detailed project summary on how the project would serve the overburdened community, its environmental impacts, and details on the direct and indirect effects it could have on Newark.
PVSC officials replied with a 55-page letter on March 30. In it, officials say Sandy exposed weaknesses at the existing plant, which many New Jersey residents rely on daily. PVSC promised to implement air emission controls, a hybrid microgrid, and conversions of combustion gas turbine generators into green fuel.
If the PVSC plant lost power again during heavy, wet weather like Sandy, “significant portions of the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark will experience…untreated sewage in floodwaters,” the letter states. PVSC officials say a new power plant will improve air quality and help the state meet its 2030 greenhouse gas emission goals, rather than harm the environment.
But health experts who spoke Wednesday were skeptical. They warned another power plant would harm Newark, which already is home to the state’s largest trash incinerator and other polluters. Over 130 health care professionals signed a letter to Murphy outlining their concerns and demanding he quash the proposal.
During the news conference, doctors described a “cumulative impact,” or multiple sources of pollution in neighborhoods that typically are low-income and communities of color.
A community plagued by environmental racism
Dr. Nicky Sheats, director of the Center for Urban Environment at Kean University, pointed to the Department of Environmental Protection’s own research, done in 2009, showing ties between income and pollution, as well as its acknowledgement that Newark has been impacted disproportionately by cumulative pollution sources. Yet, the state is proceeding with the new plant Sheats and others said will add to that cumulative pollution.
“We all know that’s not fair, and it goes against everything the state, the city and the country, at least, claim they stand for,” he said.
Lisa Cerceo of Cooper Medical Center said New Jersey has some of the highest per-capita death rates for premature deaths attributable to fossil fuel pollution. Pollution also causes lung cancer in patients who have never smoked, recurrent admissions for people with asthma even if they’re on medication, and cognitive impacts like dementia in the elderly and behavioral effects on young children, she added.
“Certainly while the health outcomes of something like a hurricane or wildfire are immediately apparent, we often ignore the invisible, fine particulate matter, but overall (we should) reduce our dependence on fossil fuels,” she said.
Newark resident Erica Castillo is a doula and student midwife living right outside of the Ironbound. She sees the effects environmental racism has had on the people she works with, who are primarily people of color and Newark residents.
She hasn’t seen a full-term pregnancy without any issues, she said. The women she works with often deal with polycystic ovary syndrome, endometriosis, fibromyalgia, and infertility.
“It’s very rare I go into a hospital and see a normal healthy birth without any complications. I’m tired of seeing this,” Castillo said. “The thing that is causing these issues is systemic racism when it comes to the medical field and when it comes to environmental racism.”
Pollution affects endocrine distributors, which regulate hormones, metabolism, and growth, she said. That contributes to high infant and maternal mortality death rates — already among the highest in the nation.
“I see death so close all the time, and we look at all these different factors,” Castillo said. “This is something that we can change. Not everything can be changed quickly, but canceling the power plant is something we can do to lower and minimize these injustices.”
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