Murphy stops controversial power plant vote, vows more thorough environmental review
Melissa Miles of the Ironbound Community Corporation goes into why Newark has felt the effects of climate change at the 'Climates of Inequality' exhibit on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019. NorthJersey.com
Gov. Phil Murphy stopped a commission from voting on a controversial power plant proposal in Newark on Thursday, saying it needed a more thorough review after opponents said it went against his clean energy goals and environmental justice initiatives to develop fewer polluting facilities in communities of color.
Murphy's move came less than an hour before the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission was to vote on a key contract to build a $180 million backup generating plant for its massive sewage treatment facility along the Passaic River.
"While the proposed backup generation put forth by the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission is meant to provide a critical climate resilience solution, it is imperative that the project adheres to the administration’s core values on environmental justice," Alexandra Altman, a Murphy spokeswoman, said in a statement.
The commission has said the plant is needed as a backup during emergencies, such as when its treatment plant lost all power for three days during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, which caused 840 million gallons of raw sewage to pour into Newark Bay and surrounding waterways.
Opponents said the plant would pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and exacerbate the intensity and frequency of storms like Sandy by slowly warming the planet. It would also release other pollutants that would add to the poor air quality and high asthma rates in the area, which is surrounded by highways, industrial facilities and the Port of Newark.
"We cannot afford any new industrial smokestacks," said Kim Gaddy, founder of Newark's South Ward Environmental Alliance. "Whatever their other intentions, they unavoidably poison our already too-poisoned lungs and add to the climate emergency. There are better options out there for our lungs, our jobs, and our Newark Bay."
The facility is the fifth-largest wastewater plant in the U.S., treating sewage from 1.5 million residents of Bergen, Passaic, Essex, Union and Hudson counties as well as from commercial and industrial facilities. It is also New Jersey's largest user of electricity.
Commission officials have said the facility would emit fewer pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide that create smog due to newer air emission controls than existing sources of power used by the regional grid. Opponents say the facility is another source of local pollution that would be pumping chemicals into an already overburdened area.
Dozens of community groups, environmentalists and civil rights organizations had sent a letter to Murphy in late December asking him to intervene. Commission members are appointed by the governor.
Murphy signed a much-celebrated environmental justice bill into law in 2020 that would force those looking to build a factory, a power plant or other polluting facilities in low-income and minority communities to measure its impact on health. The Department of Environmental Protection could deny a permit if it finds that the cumulative environmental or public health impact of the project would be higher in the overburdened community than in other, non-burdened New Jersey communities.
Altman said that while the project "is meant to provide a critical climate resilience solution," the move by Murphy on Thursday "will allow the project to undergo a more thorough environmental justice review and robust public engagement process, ensuring that the voices of the community are heard."
The plant is part of a $600 million effort to prevent future storms from taking the facility offline. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is picking up 90% of the cost of the plant, a commission spokesman said.
Three 28-megawatt turbines would be built at the plant, although the commission said only 34 megawatts would be needed to run the facility in emergency situations and when there is peak demand in the region for electricity. In non-emergency situations, the turbines are each estimated to operate for 1,100 hours per year, according to commission documents.
The plant could emit as much as 39,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year, according to an air permit application. It could also emit 8 tons of carbon monoxide, 3.5 tons of nitrogen oxide, 4.6 tons of particulate matter and other substances that would negatively affect air quality in nearby communities such as the Ironbound in Newark.
The move on Thursday is similar to one Murphy made last year regarding another backup power plant that NJ Transit wanted to build in nearby Kearny to ensure it can run some of its train lines if power from the grid is severed.
After being bombarded with intense opposition to the plant, Murphy withdrew permits for the project last year, saying NJ Transit must "determine if there is clean technology available through which the project can operate, either in whole or in part."
Scott Fallon has covered the COVID-19 pandemic since its onset in March 2020. To get unlimited access to the latest news about the pandemic's impact on New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.