Back in 2020, Gov. Murphy signed what he hailed as the nation’s strongest law to protect communities like the Ironbound in Newark, from continuing to bear an unjust share of polluting infrastructure like incinerators and power plants. Historically, it’s been places like Ironbound, where legacy industries left toxic waste behind and 21st century enterprises continue to contribute to degraded air quality that are responsible for some of the highest juvenile asthma rates in the country.
And it’s our cities like Newark, that have also borne the disproportionate share of COVID deaths and infections. They are also home to the tens of thousands of essential workers who put their health, as well as the well-being of their own families at risk, to keep our economy functioning through a once in a century mass death event that killed a million Americans.
“Today we are sending a clear message that we will longer allow Black and Brown communities in our state to be dumping grounds, where access to clean air and clean water are overlooked,” said Governor Murphy back in September of 2020, months before a COVID vaccine was available. “This action is a historic step to ensure that true community input and collaboration will factor into decisions that have a cumulative impact for years to come. I’m incredibly proud that New Jersey is now home to the strongest environmental justice law in the nation.”
The landmark legislation define an overburdened community as any “community where 35 percent of the households qualify as low-income according to the U.S. Census, 40 percent of households are minority, or 40 percent of households have limited English proficiency,” according to Murphy’s press release. “There are approximately 310 municipalities with populations totaling approximately 4,489,000 that have overburdened communities within their municipalities.”
More than 18 months later his bold commitment is being put to the test with the application from the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission to build a $180-million dollar gas powered generator to provide auxiliary power to it’s Newark Bay Treatment Plant that processes the human waste generated by 1.5 million residents in 48 municipalities in Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Union and Passaic Counties that comprise the Passaic Valley Service District.
Officials with the PVSC argue the backup generator is essential to avoid the catastrophic failure of the plant that processes 300 million gallons of waste water a day like what happened when in 2013 a 12 foot storm surge churned up by Sandy inundated the 172-acre complex. Knocked off-line for three days, the plant, the fifth largest in the nation, released a billion gallons of untreated waste into New York Harbor. Low lying homes and businesses in places like Ironbound and other Jersey coastal communities had their basements flooded with a toxic brew of chemicals and untreated sewage.
The proposed facility would be the fourth methane gas power plant in Ironbound which already hosts the state’s largest garbage incinerators as well the road network that carries all of the diesel truck traffic for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey massive port facilities.
DRAWING A LINE THAT STICKS
But an impressive coalition of the nation’s top environmental health physicians and researchers recently wrote Gov. Murphy that the plant would be contrary to the spirit of the law that he had signed back in 2020 to end the practice of concentrating polluting infrastructure in already overburdened communities of color.
The public health experts, which included pediatricians, cardiologists and pulmonary specialists warned that Ironbound residents were already experiencing “high levels of pollution from numerous sources including an incinerator, power plants, heavy industry, Newark airport, truck and train traffic, and a major highway.”
Specifically, the proposed plant would generate a class of air pollutants “linked to a host of health problems including respiratory and cardiovascular disease, autism, learning disabilities, cancer, and neurodegenerative disease. In addition to these direct health impacts, air pollutants from gas-fired power plants are a major contributor to the climate crisis and will increase risk of harm from severe weather events, heat, and flooding in this community.”
The experts warned it was Ironbound, as well as the rest of Newark, that was already “disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with high rates of severe illness and deaths compared to other populations…. due to a number of factors including high rates of co-morbid conditions that increase risk of severe disease as well as greater exposure to air pollutants.”
And this they said would also have serious life-long consequences for the children in these already overburdened neighborhoods.
“Children are highly impacted by the environmental conditions in Newark where 25 percent of children, more than three times the national rate, are diagnosed with asthma and hospitalized at 30 times the rate as children in other areas of the country. The high rates of unmanaged asthma in this community are a major contributor to chronic school absenteeism, which in turn contributes to an educational achievement gap and loss of social and emotional supports.”
Specifically, during the 2013-2014 school year, “one in four children in grades K-3, or 4,328 students, was chronically absent, missing 10 or more school days, with asthma given as the primary health reason. The addition of yet another pollution source would further worsen the health of this community’s youngest residents.”
Moreover, the coalition asserted that there were more “safer” more climate friendly alternatives to the PVSC’s methane power plant that would actually utilize a “zero-emission, renewable energy” solution.
At an April 20th press conference at the Ironbound Community Corporation’s Down Bottom Farms reporters heard from some of the letter’s signatories and local residents opposed to the plant.
“Residents and activists spoke Wednesday in a community garden amid the industrialized area, where dozens of passing garbage trucks and tractor trailers made their point for them: As each vehicle passed, choking exhaust that burned the nose and throat was left in its wake,” reported the Associated Press’s Wayne Parry. “And the roar of jets passing low overhead on their approach to Newark Liberty International Airport shook the ground and drowned out conversations.”
The AP dispatch continued. “We deserve clean air,” said 9-year-old Destiny Tate. “It stinks so much. We can’t live like this anymore.”
Dr. Amanda Dilger is a Boston based surgeon affiliated with Harvard Medical School who specializes in researching the effects of climate change on surgical patients who appeared at the event over zoom.
HEALING THE HURT THAT LINGERS
“We see a lot of the impacts of disproportionate burdens of pollution on our environmental justice communities locally, and also what’s going on in Newark,” Dr’ Dilger said. “We know that increased levels of air pollution are associated with cardio-vascular heart and lung mortality morbidity. This effects our surgical patients and contributes to the disproportionate healthcare burdens based on Black and Brown communities. So, we know we can’t address these healthcare inequalities that we see without addressing environmental racism such as placing such as the placement of the dispute plant in Newark.”
In person speakers included Dr. Robert Laumbach, a nationally recognized physician who teaches environmental and occupational medicine at Rutgers School of Public Health. He said policy makers had to consider the cumulative impacts affecting the health of Ironbound residents that required the “need to draw a line” where “any increase in air pollution was too much.”
“Think of it triple whammy—what you have is more exposure in certain communities like Newark where you have more susceptible individuals with pre-existing conditions like asthma, heart disease, and diabetes that we know from a scientific point of view make more people susceptible to air pollution, and then you have interactions with these various factors, that can be more than additive, they can be synergistic ” Dr. Lumbach warned.
Nicky Sheats, is an attorney and the director of the Center for the Urban Environment of the John S. Watson Institute for Urban Policy and Research at Kean University. He was a founding member of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance and serves on the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council and the White House’s Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
Sheats explained to the Earth Day themed gathering that dealing with the “accumulative impacts” in places like Ironbound was the nation’s “preeminent environmental justice issue.”
“On reason it’s hard to address is because of its close association with race and they multiple sources in communities of color—and we all know in the United States if the issue involves race, it’s always hard to deal with,” Sheats said.
Back in January, Gov. Murphy ordered the PVSC hold off on a vote on the controversial plant.
At the time, Maria Lopez-Nunez, the director of environmental justice and community development with the Ironbound Community Corporation told the New Jersey Monitor “there’s a lot of irony in saying that climate change is getting worse and we need to to make New Jersey better, so let’s build another fossil fuel plant to fight climate change.”
PVSC is moving ahead with what they believe is an improved plan and will be holding a virtual hearing on April 26 as part of the process it hopes will lead to the New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection granting it an air permit. The NJDEP is still in the process of finalizing the regulations required for Murphy’s landmark environmental justice legislation to take effect.
It was the PVSC that back in 2011 was the subject of a wide ranging probe by the New Jersey’s Attorney General’s Division of Criminal Justice that zeroed in on allegations of kickbacks as well the improper solicitation of campaign donations from the authority’s employees.
In 2011, after the Star Ledger reported “widespread nepotism, patronage and insider deals for the politically connected” at the PVSC
Gov. Chris Christie fired six of the agency’s commissioners along with 90 employees. “Instead of taking steps to reform the commission, the members of the board who we terminated over a week ago repeatedly engaged in a pattern of abuse,” Christie said told reporters at the time. He appointed former Somerset County Prosecutor Wayne Forrest to clean house at the PVSC.
At least two of the current PVSC commissioners who will decide on the new plant are very familiar with Newark.
Both Newark City Council President Luis A. Quintana and former Newark City Council Member Mildred Crump sit on the bi-partisan panel. The rest of the roster includes Board Chair Thomas Tucci, Hector Lora, Mayor of Passaic, John Cosgrove, former Mayor of Fair Lawn, Brendan Murphy, former Totowa Council Member and Elizabeth Calabrese, former Bergen County Freeholder.