Newark residents and environmental activists are calling on New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to delay plans by a wastewater treatment facility to build a natural gas power plant in an over-polluted corner of the city.
The Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, which serves one in six New Jersey residents and treats waste from states along the East Coast, including New York, will vote on a construction contract for the $180 million project on Thursday.
“It's not fair for facilities like PVSC to strengthen themselves at the cost and expense of the surrounding community,” said Melissa Miles, executive director of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance. “They are, once again, externalizing the costs on to the people who live closest.”
The PVSC wants to build an 84-megawatt power plant on its property in an industrial corner in Newark’s East Ward. The plant would produce back-up power during storms and only run for maintenance purposes or when the energy grid is overloaded during high demand (about once a year, according to PVSC). Officials say emergency power is necessary to mitigate against climate change and worsening storms. When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, the facility lost power for 72 hours and 840 million gallons of raw sewage seeped into the Passaic River and Newark Bay.
But environmental advocates say building a new power plant is antithetical to Murphy’s promises to protect Black and brown communities from being exposed to more polluting facilities. Murphy signed a landmark bill in 2020 that would empower the state to reject permits for projects like power plants or other manufacturing facilities if they have a disproportionate impact on communities already overburdened by pollution.
The law’s rules are still being written so the measure won’t take effect until later this spring at the earliest. That means the proposed power plant, which is waiting for an air permit approval from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, could escape the additional scrutiny. Last year, the DEP issued an administrative order mandating that any facility seeking a permit in an environmentally overburdened community hold public hearings and respond to concerns raised by the community.
But environmental and civil rights groups said that hasn’t been enough to allay their concerns about the power plant. They’re urging Murphy to intervene and, at least, delay the vote this week.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka's office, likewise, did not respond to a request for comment on his position.
“I think everyone would agree that having two power plants is disproportionate. Having three, after the strongest environmental justice law was signed in your city, is just insult, you know, it's morally reprehensible,” said Maria Lopez Nuñez, deputy director of organizing and advocacy at the Ironbound Community Corporation, an environmental advocacy group in Newark.
The proposed power plant would be located near a four-square-mile residential neighborhood known as the Ironbound, home to 50,000 residents.
“We're less than a mile away from the nearest elementary school and we're just a couple of blocks from the closest homes,” she said.
The plant would run no more than 1,200 hours a year and its emissions would be below acceptable state standards, according to a copy of their submitted permit. The Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission is the fifth largest wastewater treatment facility in the country. It serves 48 towns in Bergen, Hudson, Passaic, Union and Essex counties in the densely-populated northeast corner of the state.
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“Backup power is a big issue for water supply and wastewater utilities. They aren't allowed to be out of business at any time, and yet are entirely dependent on the electricity grid unless they have their own power sources,” said Daniel Van Abs, who teaches Practice for Water, Society & Environment at Rutgers University. “As we saw with Sandy, the grid isn't reliable enough, and so alternative energy sources are required for emergency situations.”
But he said if the PVSC chooses to go with fossil fuels, it can’t do so lightly and needs to take the community into account by committing to a plan to shift to renewable energy.
“There are costs to all these steps, but this is a regional facility that has its greatest impacts on a single neighborhood — the region owes that neighborhood for PVSC to be the best neighbor it can be, both now and evolving to better conditions in the future,” he wrote in an email.
PVSC said using 100% renewable energy sources like solar or wind aren’t feasible because they don’t have the space on their property for an appropriate number of solar panels or batteries. The site is too close to the airport to erect enough wind turbines to produce 34-megawatts of electricity — which is what’s needed to power the facility for two weeks. That’s the same amount needed to power all the households within Clifton, a nearby city of 85,000 people.
Spokesman Doug Scancarella said the plant would initially run on natural gas. But he said PVSC plans to “accelerate its pre-existing plans” to use alternative renewables “either in conjunction with natural gas or, as the technology becomes available, as a complete replacement.”
Pankaj Lal, director of Montclair State University’s Clean Energy and Sustainability Analytics Center, said there are hybrid models the PVSC can look into as well as creative storage solutions for battery power. He said there was an irony that the PVSC would be relying on greenhouse gases as a way to protect against climate change.
“You are trying to combat climate change impact and you are contributing to the climate change,” he said.
Lal said the new power plant will also be obsolete in the not-so-distant future as Murphy plans to cut carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.