Resiliency collides with environmental justice in power plan
Two of New Jersey's big stated priorities — protecting the environment, and keeping minority communities from being overburdened with pollution — are about to collide in a decision over a backup power plant that would kick in when a sewage treatment system gets knocked offline.
The Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission is expected to award a contract Thursday for the largest part of a $180 million backup power project that would kick in during severe storms, power outages or instances of a cyber attack.
It is designed to avoid a repeat of what happened after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 when nearly a billion gallons of raw sewage spilled into area waterways while the plant was knocked offline.
But the plant sits near a neighborhood in Newark the state's largest city and one populated largely by minorities, that residents say is already overburdened with pollution sources.
A coalition of environmental and community groups wants New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to reject the plan and direct the commission to redesign it so that it does not increase the pollution burden on Newark's Ironbound neighborhood, which already has two other power plants nearby.
“A third is immoral,” they wrote in a letter to the governor they made public this week. If the plant is built, “your administration will repeat the historic pattern of placing unfair environmental burdens on communities of color.”
Outside the gates of the sewage plant, as tanker trucks roared by every few seconds, Maria Lopez-Nunez recalled the day in 2020 when the Democratic governor signed an environmental justice law.
“Newark is more of a sacrificial zone than a vibrant community at this point,” said Lopez-Nunez, deputy director of the Ironbound Community Corporation. The neighborhood takes its name from the railroad tracks that surround it on three sides.
“Governor Murphy stood in this very city when he signed a law to prevent Black and brown communities from being environmental dumping grounds,” she said. “We were his safety net when he just barely won his election. Now we need a safety net.”
Murphy's office did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday and Wednesday. In his annual State of the State speech Tuesday, he listed signing the environmental justice law among the highlights of his soon-to-be completed first term.
The sewerage commission said its personnel cannot comment on pending matters, but cited material on its web site in defense of the need for the project.
Thursday's vote is on a $142.5 million building to house the backup power system. Other components of the system have already been bought or built.
The backup power plant originally was proposed to run solely on natural gas, which residents say would worsen already poor air quality in the neighborhood. On a recent visit to the site, the stench of sewage hung heavy in the air near giant outdoor treatment tanks. Residents say the smell often travels for miles.
The commission says it has modified the plan to incorporate the use of “alternative green renewable fuels” in conjunction with burning natural gas, and if and when technology advances to that point, using such fuels to replace natural gas entirely.
Aside from emergencies requiring its use, the plant would only operate one day a month for testing and maintenance. The commission says the facility “does experience other power outages from time to time.”
Without a backup power source, the commission says, the loss of power combined with heavy rain could result in raw sewage backing up into homes and potentially flooding streets in Newark and surrounding cities including Jersey City and Bayonne.
The commission says it has almost all the approvals it needs for the project, needing only a review of technical specifications by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Lopez-Nunez said even if the new power plant is not built, the neighborhood's residents will still suffer from the effects of pollution.
“You can smell this neighborhood; people talk about it who drive by on the New Jersey Turnpike,” she said. “One in four children in Newark has asthma. We have thousands of trucks going by every day. Barges unload human waste here. Airplanes are constantly over our heads. There are major highways all around us. We continue to be trampled on.”