Industrial facilities that stand to be turned away from overburdened communities under the new bill include landfills, power plants, sewage treatment plants, waste transfer stations, recycling and solid waste facilities, garbage incinerators, and other major sources of air pollution under the Clean Air Act.
But the decades of pollution experienced by large parts of Newark, Camden, and many other Garden State communities will take far more than a single bill to rectify. While the bill prevents the addition of new acute pollution sources in overburdened communities, it does little to address massive sources of legacy pollution that produce ongoing harms. The mammoth waste incinerators operated by the international energy giant Covanta in both Newark and Camden are a case in point.
A study published by the New School’s Tishman Environment and Design Center last year found that roughly 8 out of 10 waste incinerators in the U.S. are located in low-income communities of color. Approximately 4.4 million Americans live within a 3-mile radius of an incinerator. These facilities, which exist due to a shortage of space for landfills, emit toxic chemicals such as mercury, lead, fine particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and carbon monoxide — all of which pose health hazards to nearby communities.
“I struggle to breathe,” Lopez-Nuñez said. “I can feel the difference when I leave my neighborhood.”
The Covanta Essex incinerator, built in Newark in 1990, burns nearly 3,000 tons of trash each day. Most of the garbage comes from New York City and other parts of Essex County outside of Newark, but the Ironbound community bears the brunt of its pollution. According to the New School study, the facility emits the highest amount of lead of any municipal solid waste incinerator in the country, with over 600 pounds of lead reported in 2014.
In April, as the COVID-19 pandemic reached full swing in the region, Ironbound residents and drivers along Interstate 95 caught sight of thick purple plumes of smoke coming out of the waste incinerator’s smoke stack. The new vibrant coloring alarmed Ironbound residents, given that the smoke usually appeared in unremarkable black and white.
CHRISTOPHER RODRIGEUZ / IRONBOUND COMMUNITY
It was roughly the fifth time Covanta Essex released pink or purple-colored smoke since June 2019. Last October, one particularly robust purple plume prompted ICC, represented by the nonprofit Earthjustice and the Vermont Law School Environmental Advocacy Clinic, to write a letter to the state DEP and Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, demanding that they reanalyze Covanta’s previous air permit violations and investigate the purple plumes coming out of its incinerator. Though Covanta has a history of violating the Clean Air Act, the DEP has consistently granted its permit renewals.
After the October incident, Covanta reported that they tracked the source of the purple plumes to the unintentional burning of iodine that got into their trash pile, likely from photography or print studios and other manufacturing sites. But iodine is also found in medical supplies, sparking concerns that the facility was burning unregulated medical waste in addition to its normal load of municipal solid waste. Nevertheless, the company deemed the plumes low-risk and encouraged residents not to worry.
Medical researchers as well as a New Jersey Department of Health fact sheet say that exposure to the burning of iodine can lead to lung irritation and kidney and liver damage. The purple plume incidents worried the Ironbound community, especially since the facility is also one of the largest emitters of particulate matter in the city. (The latest incident occurred during the same week the Harvard School of Public Health released a study suggesting a link between particulate matter pollution and severe COVID-19 outcomes.)
Covanta told Grist that the company has been engaging in ongoing discussions with the DEP since they first noticed the purple-tinted smoke and has launched a mitigation system that would help identify iodine-tainted materials to prevent the release of purple plumes again.
“The combustion of [iodine], because it was such small concentrations, was not dangerous to the people living or working in that area,” James Regan, Covanta’s director of communications, told Grist. He denied that the facility ever processed medical waste.
“The facility does not process regulated medical waste,” he said. “Instead that waste stream is collected separately, processed separately at different facilities. We obviously don’t want these events. We’ve done everything we can to get to the bottom of why this happened.”
Earthjustice attorney Jonathan Smith, who has been working with ICC since 2018, said that the incinerator has a record of violating air permits over the years. He also said that Covanta needs “to have a better inspection of what’s getting thrown” into the incinerator. Earthjustice has tried to work with the DEP to prevent issues such as the purple plume emissions from happening again. Though the latest incident happened in April, Smith said that the DEP has not shared any new information about a proposed prevention plan.
Courtesy Jonathan Smith
“These purple plumes are conspicuous permit violations, but there’s all sorts of other permit violations going on that aren’t pink or purple, and not readily seen by people in Newark,” Smith told Grist. “We want to make sure the state adequately fines Covanta for all these violations over the past years, makes sure it doesn’t happen again, and has Covanta change its practices so that it’s actually aware of what is thrown into their incinerators.”
Waste incinerators, like fossil fuel companies, have tried to rebrand themselves in the last two decades as producers of renewable energy. Covanta promotes itself as a source for sustainable and renewable energy through its waste-to-energy process, in which waste is burned, and the heat from incinerations creates steam, which then generates electricity. Both the Newark and Camden facilities participate in this process. But local activists say that this process won’t put a dent in the pollution that the incinerators pump into their communities.
“Burning trash is toxic, regardless of what you say,” Lopez-Nuñez said. “As a person who lives in the community who struggles with a respiratory illness myself, it’s unacceptable that this is the way we deal with trash. There are other options and different alternatives that won’t make our community a dumping ground.”
Ana Baptista, associate director of the Tishman Environment and Design Center at the New School and co-author of the incinerator study, says that converting waste to energy is actually one of the worst ways to generate electricity out of all fuel sources, because it involves the unsustainable practice of burning plastic and other inorganic materials, which then produces high levels of persistent pollution such as fine particulate matter.
“As incinerators age, they create more pollution, more financial burden, and ultimately they’re really bad for any kind of real and more sustainable waste management practices,” Baptista said. “There’s no incentive [for incinerators] to recycle, or to reduce waste, or to compost or divert waste from waste streams, if [they] are locked into contracts that require volume to keep their business profitable.”