Critics assail plans for a new power plant in Newark

by Sophie Nieto-Munoz, New Jersey Monitor

One by one, Newark residents and environmentalists sounded off Tuesday on why the Passaic Valley Sewage Commission should not build a new power plant in the city’s Ironbound section.

A lifelong resident said she wouldn’t want to raise her children in Newark because of the air pollution. An environmental activist said a fourth power plant would contribute to the worsening effects of climate change. One woman said she’d rather enjoy a walk on a nice spring day than breathe in more smog.

“No increased amount of toxins in the air is acceptable. And if you believe otherwise, I wish you’d think about how many magnitudes of increase of toxins are you willing to expose to your own children,” said Anthony Rios.

Over 60 people spoke during a three-hour virtual meeting Tuesday evening, pleading with the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission to change their plans to approve a new, 84-megawatt power plant and calling on Gov. Phil Murphy to step in to halt the proposal.

The Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission operates a sprawling sewage treatment plant in Newark, which treats wastewater for one in six New Jerseyans and services customers along the East Coast. It’s the largest consumer of electricity in the state, and the fifth-largest facility of its kind in the country.

The agency will continue taking public comment through June 3 on the power plant proposal. It’s unclear whether a vote to approve the power plant is scheduled.

Agency officials say they need the new, gas-powered plant in case the existing treatment center ever loses power, like it did after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Over the three days the facility shut down after that monster storm struck the region, 840 million gallons of raw sewage flowed into the Passaic River and Newark Bay. If it happens again — which is possible, considering worsening weather events — raw sewage could flow into the streets, agency officials said Tuesday.

The plan has faced mounting community opposition, prompting Murphy to pause a January vote that would have awarded a permit and allowed construction to begin on the $180 million power plant. Murphy ordered an environmental review of the plan under a 2021 administrative order.

Opponents argue the power plant should be subject to an environmental justice law Murphy signed in 2020. State Department of Environmental Protection officials say the rules for that law are still being written, and stress the power plant plans are still subject to an environmental review.

Tuesday’s meeting began with Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission officials explaining environmental changes it would make to the power plant proposal. The agency’s executive director, Gregory Tramontozzi, said the agency also has concerns about emissions from the facility and wants to be a good neighbor to the community.

The plant would run about 12 days a year and for maintenance, unless one of the other three plants shuts down.

Tramontozzi cited solar panels in 59 locations on the plant and said the plant would offset more emissions than it would create. 

Public documents say the plant would comply with all federal and state standards, and that the agency is open to “new suggestions and continuing to investigate solutions.”

“All these steps will ensure that PVSC can continue to provide uninterrupted sewer service in the event of loss of power, and will protect those who live closest to PVSC from the dangers of flooding and exposure to toxins, contaminants, and diseases,” Tramontozzi said.

But a chorus of residents and advocates pleaded with PVSC to halt its plans. Just three people spoke in support during the three hours of public comment. 

Several doctors, some of whom spoke at a rally last week with other health care officials opposed to the plant, said the plant would harm the largely Black and Hispanic community of Newark. They also said the agency’s environmental review does not take into account existing air pollution and worsening climate change.

Keith Voos, representing the NAACP’s New Jersey chapter, said Newark — a city home to an airport, a port, dozens of warehouses and congested highways — shouldn’t bear the burden of a power plant after decades of dealing with pollution. Newark’s Ironbound section also has a fat-rendering plant and the state’s largest garbage incinerator. 

“Now, in 2022, we’ve been through a pandemic. The world has changed. We’re on the verge, we’re at the edge of our limits when it comes to climate change,” said Maria Lopez-Nunez of the Ironbound Community Commission. “We have seen that Black and brown people will die and have been dying.” 

According to public documents, the plant could emit up to 39,000 tons of carbon dioxide, eight tons of carbon monoxide, and 4.6 tons of particulate matter in and around the Ironbound annually.

Many critics called on the agency to look into renewable energy, wind turbines, and geothermal technology. Agency officials said solar is too risky, and the location is too close to the Newark airport for proper wind turbines. 

Some residents questioned the logic behind running a power plant during a bad storm and asked how often PVSC would be able to use those storms as reason to run the plant. Others used strong language, telling the agency to cancel the power plant — or at least get it out of Newark. 

Paula Rogovin said “there are no huge trucks that would dare go through” Teaneck, where she lives. She stressed this plan adds to the environmental racism the world should be working to overturn. 

“This is wrong and your proposal, PVSC, for a power plant in an already overburdened — way overburdened community — is evil,” she said.

People can continue providing comment on the PVSC’s website or via email at spfgproject@pvsc.com through June 3 at 4:15 p.m. 

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