NJ groups plead with Murphy to stop plans for new $180M power plant as vote draws near

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Community groups and environmentalists are asking Gov. Phil Murphy to stop a plan to build a $180 million gas-fired power plant along the Passaic River in Newark that is scheduled for a vote this week.

The proposal comes from the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, whose members are set to vote Thursday on a contract to build the backup power plant, which would keep its massive sewage treatment facility running during a prolonged power outage like the one it suffered during Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Opponents say the power plant would pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and exacerbate the strength and frequency of storms like Sandy, which caused the treatment plant to spew 840 million gallons of raw sewage into Newark Bay and surrounding waterways when power was disrupted.

Those who live in the nearby Ironbound community worry that the plant would worsen the poor local air quality. They say it goes against both Murphy's clean power initiatives and his calls for environmental justice — the goal of building fewer polluting facilities in communities of color.

"If Governor Murphy does not step in, his promises to protect our communities will be broken," said Maria Lopez-Nunez, director of Environmental Justice and Community Development at Ironbound Community Corporation. "He still has a chance to stop the vote to start construction on Thursday."

A rendering of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission's proposed power plant along the Passaic River in Newark.
A rendering of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission's proposed power plant along the Passaic River in Newark.

A letter sent to Murphy late last year asking him to intervene was signed by dozens of groups, including some of the largest civil rights organizations in the state.

A spokeswoman for Murphy did not respond to a request for comment.

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The mammoth sewage treatment plant is the single largest user of electricity in New Jersey. It handles sewage from 1.5 million residents in 48 towns across Bergen, Passaic, Hudson and Essex counties. The plant was without any power for three days and without full power for three weeks after Sandy's 12-foot storm surge inundated the plant. It caused sewage to spill into the region's bays, rivers and harbors.

"A critical component for resiliency planning is the need to have an absolutely secure, reliable, on-site standby power generation facility," said Doug Scancarella, a spokesman for Passaic Valley.

The proposed power plant would use three 28-megawatt turbines, although only 34 megawatts would be needed to run the plant, according to a recent presentation by the commission's contractors. It would be used 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 a year,

The plant could emit as much as 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. Newark and the surrounding area already have high levels of childhood asthma.

Map of where Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission is proposing to build a power plant along the Passaic River in Newark.
Map of where Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission is proposing to build a power plant along the Passaic River in Newark.

The plant could also emit as much as 39,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year, according to an air permit application by the commission. The commission's contractors say that would be less than what is currently produced using electricity from the grid.

The overwhelming majority of scientists, peer-reviewed studies and government agencies have shown that the planet is warming due in large part to human activity, including by burning such fossil fuels as coal, natural gas and gasoline, which has increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, preventing heat from escaping into space.

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New Jersey is particularly vulnerable. Sea level rise is double the global average due to a gradually sinking landmass combined with an era of climate change marked by melting glaciers and the expansion of warmer water along the shore.

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.

But the law has not yet taken effect. The DEP still needs to write rules to implement it.

The sewerage commission's proposed power plant could also bypass increased scrutiny if it serves "a compelling public interest in the community where it is to be located," as outlined in the law.

"The last thing Newark and the surrounding region needs during a public health and climate crisis is another polluting power plant," said Matt Smith, New Jersey director of the environmental advocacy group Food & Water Watch.

Passaic Valley will "accelerate its pre-existing plans" to convert the power plant to run on a combination of renewable energy and natural gas or as a complete replacement, Scancarella said

The project and issues surrounding it resemble NJ Transit's proposal in recent years to build a $546 million gas-fired power plant in the Meadowlands along the Hackensack River in Kearny to provide electricity to trains in case a storm like Sandy were to knock out access to the grid.

That project, called Transitgrid, also generated a swell of opposition from environmentalists, community groups and municipal councils in at least 10 towns and cities in Bergen and Hudson counties. 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.

Email: fallon@northjersey.com

Twitter: @newsfallon

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Newark NJ power plant: Groups urge Phil Murphy to block vote