Newark’s Up in the Air Election


There’s no public question on Newark’s election May 10 ballot about a controversial proposal by the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission to build a $180-million dollar gas powered generator to provide auxiliary power to its Newark Bay Treatment Plant. 

Like so much of Newark, the PVSC’s 172 acre sprawling complex is not under the dominion of the municipality where it exists to treat the human waste generated by 1.5 million residents in 48 municipalities in Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Union and Passaic Counties that make-up the Passaic Valley Service District, a kind of government unto itself. 

According to an impressive coalition of nationally recognized public health experts, the plant if built,  would further undermine the health of the surrounding community, especially children already coping with some of the highest rates of asthma in the nation.

While this environmental issue doesn’t seem to be part of the Newark campaign debate, it still is generating a lot of concern from the community. According to the New Jersey Monitor,  at a May 3 virtual hearing over 60 people, mostly community members and environmentalists took three hours to testify  against the project. 

“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,” reported the independent, non-profit news site. 

“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, the news site reported. “We have seen that Black and brown people will die and have been dying.” 

At the top of the tomorrow’s ballot, Mayor Was Baraka faces a challenge from Shelia Montague, a poet and former public school teacher. Back in 2014, Montague supported Baraka’s initial run of Mayor but has become disillusioned with his pragmatic endorsement of school board candidates that were charter school advocates and privatization boosters.  

Baraka didn’t responded to a query about their stand on the PVSC plant proposal, which Gov. Phil Murphy delayed briefly and then the PVSC ramped back up again. Montague says she opposes the plant.

Back in 2020, Gov. Phil 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 industry left toxic waste behind and 21st century enterprises like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey continue to contribute to the degraded air quality. 

Throughout the pandemic, Gov. Murphy has stressed the importance of addressing the wealth and healthcare disparities in the state’s communities of color like Newark that were brought into shocking relief during the pandemic. According to a national economic analysis, done by noted economist Jeffrey Sachs and Rev. Dr. William Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign,. Newark and Essex County saw some of the highest per capital death rates in the country with Essex County recoding 3,536 cumulative deaths, or 443 deaths per 100,000.

At an April protest rally against the plant, Dr. Robert Laumbach, a nationally recognized physician who teaches environmental and occupational medicine at  Rutgers School of Public Health 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. 

Down ballot, in the East Ward, where the PVSC plant is located , the longtime City Council incumbent Augusto Amador is retiring. The four way race includes Anthony Campos, for Newark Police Chief, Louis Weber, the executive secretary of the Newark  Police Department’s Alcohol Beverage Control unit, Johnathan Seabra, whose family own’s a local supermarket and works in financial services and Michael J. Silva, retired Newark Police detective. 

Efforts to reach Campos, Weber and Seabra were unsuccessful. 

“The so-called ‘Plan B’ for the new Passaic Valley Sewage Commission site in the East Ward is still a slap in the face to our community,” responded Silva in an email. “This high pollution facility is not ideal for our community’s health and wellbeing. As a cancer survivor, I’m very concerned about the cumulative impact this facility adds to our quality of life considering we already get pollution from our port, airport, traffic, industrial zones, garbage incinerator, sewer treatment facility, and several energy production sites already in use. As your next councilman I will take these environmental issues seriously, as this additional air pollution will have generational impacts on our community.”

The issue of Newark’s air quality did come up last month at the well-attended South Ward Council campaign debate held at St. John’s Community Baptist Church. With the retirement of Council Member John Sharpe James the seat is open in this district that share some of the East Ward’s environmental challenges.

The field includes: Trenton Jones, a former aid to the outgoing James; Terrance Bankston, an organizer with Clean Water Action; Cynthia Truitt-Rease, former chief of staff to James; Christina Cherry, former U.S. Navy Seabee with degrees in business management and psychology; and Douglas Freeman, who ran as a Republican for the Essex County Board of Freeholders.

In their answers to the air quality questions the candidates referenced and aligned themselves with the community organizing done by long-time Newark environmentalist activist Kim Gaddy, Clean Water Action’s National Environmental Justice Director, and leading figure in the opposition to the PVSC power plant proposal.  

“We are already coming together in our community,” said Freeman, who also described a plan he endorsed several years ago to have PSE&G install solar panels to put on residential properties. “Teaching our children about environmental studies, environmental awareness and also about environmental jobs. These are things we don’t touch on,” Freeman added.

Council, who is reportedly being supported by Mayor Baraka, also referenced the work of Kim Gaddy and the community’s battles with the Port Authority over air emissions from its airport and port facilities. “We need to continue to create legislation, not just on quality of life, or air issues, but on environmental racism,” Council said. “This is systemic. It is structural and we didn’t invent it but we have to something to change it.”

Cherry flagged the need for community engagement as a strategy to confront the issue of trucks idling their engines throughout the South Ward. “It is my job to have a conversation with the community and find out how your family members who have asthma are affected and what you think is contributing to that,” she said.   

Truitt-Rease also expressed her support for Gaddy’s activism, pledging to work with her if she was elected. “I am also passionate about this issue because I have had many friends that passed with asthma attacks,” she said. “Now, we are dealing with the oversized trucks being parked in residential neighborhoods. Now, we are dealing with people fixing cars on our streets  with leaking oil, transmission fluid—whatever.”

Bankston, who opposes the PVSC project as being “detrimental”,  touted at the forum he had been endorsed by Gaddy, who is also his aunt. He described what he saw as the generational consequences of the city’s chronic air pollution.  

“When it comes to asthma —a majority of our [school] absenteeism is due to asthma and part of that has to do with healthcare and part of that has to do with the lack of health insurance and our students having to stay home because  they’re not getting the proper treatments—the schools don’t know how to deal with it,” Bankston said. “We even have to deal with this when our kids leave this environmentally devastating place and they go to college and they are having breathing issues and its a whole climate change.” 

Whichever candidate prevails, they are going to find that there’s a real dynamic tension between what their constituents need and Newark’s elected officials ability to win concessions from entities like the PVSC and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. These agencies occupy vast swaths of the City of Newark, and are controlled by Commissioners who mostly live outside of the city insulating them considerably from the pollution their operations generate that Newark’s children must endure 24/7.

Almost 70 percent of property in Newark, an astoundingly high percentage, is tax-exempt because it belongs to the Federal or state governments, to government entities like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey or to schools, hospitals or religious groups,” reported the New York Times in 1998. “These owners do pay the city fees in lieu of taxes, but city officials contend that the fees are only a fraction of what the owners would pay if taxes could be levied.”

Larry Hamm, a long time Newark political activist and founder of the People’s Organization of Progressive, a community based non-profit, believes that most Newark residents have no idea about  about this “other system of government” that has so much control of their city’s economy and environment.

“And the average person can’t even tell you who there City Council person is, much less their state senator or state assembly person—they might know who their member of Congress is—but all of these agencies represent a kind of government that people don’t see,” said Hamm during a phone interview. “People are not elected to these bodies but appointed by singular people like the Governor. Their operations are often outside the purview of even the people who work within the government.” 

Hamm said that Newark’s center city predicament was not that different from that of Washington D.C. as the nation’s capital, where so much of its destiny was shaped by people from outside the district. 

“In the old days in the 60s’ I even heard Martin Luther King use this term ‘internal colonialism’ for Black cities in this position,”  Hamm said. 

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