Resiliency collides with environmental justice in power plan

Two of New Jersey’s stated top priorities–protecting the environment, and preventing minority communities from overburdening themselves with pollution–are about to collide with a decision about a backup power plant that will kick in when its sewage treatment system malfunctions.

The Passaic Valley Sanitation Commission is expected to award a contract Thursday for the bulk of a $180 million backup power project that will begin during severe storms, blackouts or cyber attack situations.

It was designed to avoid a repeat of what happened after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 when nearly one billion gallons of raw sewage spilled into the region’s waterways while the plant was down.

But the plant is located near a neighborhood in Newark, the state’s largest city and one that is inhabited by minorities, that residents say is already burdened with pollution sources.

A coalition of environmental and community groups wants New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy to reject the plan and direct the commission to redesign it so that it does not increase the pollution burden in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, which already has two other power plants nearby.

“And the third is immoral,” they wrote in a letter to the governor, announced this week. If the plant is built, “your management will repeat the historical pattern of placing unfair environmental burdens on communities of color.”

Outside the sewage station gates, with tanker trucks roaring every few seconds, Maria Lopez Nunez remembers the day in 2020 when the Democratic governor signed the Environmental Justice Act.

“Newark is more of a sacrifice area than a vibrant community at this point,” said Lopez Nunez, Iron Bound Community Corporation Vice President. The neighborhood takes its name from the railway lines that surround it on three sides.

“Governor Murphy stood in this very town when he signed a law preventing black and brown communities from becoming environmental dumps,” she said. “We were his safety net when he barely won his election. Now we need a safety net.”

Murphy’s office did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday and Wednesday. In his annual State of the State address on Tuesday, he listed the signing of the Environmental Sanitation Act among the highlights of his soon-to-be-expiring first term.

The Sanitation Commission said its staff could not comment on outstanding matters, but cited material on its website in defense of the need for the project.

A $142.5 million building was voted on Thursday to house the backup power system. Other components of the system have already been purchased or built.

The standby power plant was originally proposed to run on natural gas only, which residents say would worsen the neighborhood’s already poor air quality. On a recent site visit, the stench of sewage permeated the air near giant outdoor treatment tanks. Residents say the smell often travels for miles.

The commission says it has modified the plan to include the use of “alternative renewable green fuels” in conjunction with burning natural gas, and when the technology has progressed to that point, the use of such fuels to completely replace natural gas.

Aside from emergencies that require their use, the plant will only operate one day a month for testing and maintenance. The commission says the facility “suffers from other blackouts from time to time”.

Without a backup power source, the power loss combined with heavy rain could result in raw sewage returning to homes and potentially flooding streets in Newark and surrounding cities including Jersey City and Bayonne, the commission says.

The commission says it has nearly all the approvals it needs for the project, and only needs to have technical specifications reviewed by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Even if the new power plant is not built, Lopez Nunez said, residents of the neighborhood will still suffer the effects of pollution.

“You can smell this neighborhood; people are talking about it who drive in the New Jersey Turnpike.” One in four children in Newark has asthma. We have thousands of trucks that pass every day. Barges dump human waste here. Airplanes are constantly flying over us. There are major highways all around us. We are still being trampled.”


Follow Wayne Barry on Twitter at https://twitter.com/WayneParryAC.

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