Environmental justice advocates scored two victories on Thursday against two proposed industrial sites on the outskirts of Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood.
One is a planned natural gas power plant to keep a large sewage treatment plant running in the event of a disaster, and the other is a planned factory for “biosolids” that will manufacture useful products by treating purified wastewater. Both are opposed by community groups and environmentalists, who argue that the plans would bring more pollution to a place that already has more than its fair share.
In both cases, the procedural twists and turns that unfolded Thursday are merely the newest chapters in controversy that are likely to continue well into the future.
The Passaic Valley sewer system is putting its plan for a natural gas power plant back on the drawing board.
The utility has withdrawn an application to fly the project that had previously been submitted to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Doug Scancarella, a PVSC spokesman, said the plan is being revised to reduce the number of hours the power plant operates each year.
The power plant is part of PVSC’s larger plans to make the wastewater treatment plant more resilient to future natural disasters. When Superstorm Sandy struck in 2012, a storm surge inundated the facility, disrupting operations, and sending millions of gallons of untreated waste to Newark Bay.
Originally, PVSC had planned to provide the system in times of peak consumption and to provide the regional grid with more electricity. Scancarella said the revised plan will make the power plant unavailable for peak use, reducing the amount of pollution the plant is expected to cause each year.
Kim Gaddy, the environmental justice director for the New Jersey chapter of Clean Water Action, said PVSC’s withdrawal was an opportunity to transform the project significantly.
“We have to ensure that the result of this break is not only not more or less harmful to the environment than previously planned, but rather that it represents a significant reduction in the existing conditions,” said Gaddy.
Food & Water Watch, an environmental organization, said the fate of the project is ultimately in the hands of the state government.
“This is only a first step by PVSC, but it is encouraging to see the Commission understand that the communities that would be affected by this polluting facility are struggling to stop it,” said Matt Smith, state director of Food & Water Watch New Jersey. “Reg. (Phil) Murphy ultimately has the power to stop this power plant and if he intends to meet his own commitments to climate, clean energy and environmental justice, he must replace this dirty energy proposal with a clean, renewable energy alternative for protection and the public one Promote health for the residents of Newark and the communities downwind of the proposed facility. “
Scancarella warned that using natural gas to power the plant may be inevitable. He said PVSC will re-evaluate the plan to include renewables whenever possible, but the utility’s engineers have already determined that the size of the sewage treatment plant limits the amount of solar power that can be generated. The facility’s location near Newark Liberty International Airport means installing wind turbines is not an option.
“PVSC is now again exploring renewable options because the public asked us to,” said Scancarella. “If another realistic, reliable fuel source can be identified, PVSC will consider that source and examine how the project can be advanced.”
According to Scancarella, PVSC plans to hold community meetings about the project from July before the new application is submitted.
After a controversial virtual hearing on Thursday evening, during which hours of testimony and discussions took place, the Newark Zoning Board of Adjustment put a community group’s challenge against a planned facility for “biosolids” first.
Aries Clean Technologies is pushing for a new facility to be built that will take treated waste from sewage treatment plants and turn the material into a substance called biochar that can be used to make concrete. The plan has sparked violent backlash among local residents, led by Ironbound Community Corporation, who fear the facility will bring more truck traffic and air pollution to the area.
The ICC believes that the Aries facility should be classified as a sludge processing facility, which Newark zone rules specifically prohibit. However, Aries has claimed it will import “biosolids,” which are extracted from sludge, and the company argues that the distinction means the plan complies with the city’s rules.
The director of the Newark Zoning Board, Susan Brown, determined earlier this year that Aries is not a sewage sludge plant. The ICC appealed this decision, and the appeal was on the agenda of the zone committee on Thursday evening.
Aries tried to block the appeal, arguing that it wasn’t filed on time. The Building Committee rejected this argument after hearing back and forth from lawyers, two experts and members of the public for more than four hours.
The building council will consider the matter again on October 21 when it decides whether or not the Aries plan violates city ordinances. In the meantime, Aries is still seeking the necessary permits from the DEP.
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Michael Sol Warren can be reached at [email protected]