NJ's Tammy Murphy turns on her governor husband over a power plant

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NEWARK, New Jersey — One of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s most controversial projects — a gas-fired power plant inside the state’s largest city — has a new critic: his wife.

Tammy Murphy, who is running to replace Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, came out against a new plant planned for Newark to provide backup power to a state-run sewer agency that serves much of North Jersey.

She said Newark already has three gas-fired power plants, plus an incinerator and lots of diesel truck traffic, so the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission should not build a new plant there.

“I oppose the PVSC plant,” she said at a Tuesday morning press conference where she joined others against the project.

But her opposition may end up raising more questions than it answers about her role in her husband’s administration and as a candidate of her own.

Murphy said the remarks on Tuesday were her first public comments about the plant and she declined to say whether she had discussed the matter with the governor.

The governor’s office declined to comment.

Tammy Murphy has made much of her support for environmental issues and efforts to fight climate change. She was a founding board member for Al Gore's Climate Reality Action Fund and, as first lady, helped push climate change curriculum in state schools.

She said she came to oppose the plant after conversations about the plant with its critics.

Yet, the issue is not new. And if she opposes the plant, why not take it up with her husband — who is surely her closest political ally and the person who can most likely kill the project?

“I’ve been talking to other people about this,” she told reporters. “I’m not here to stand up and speak for the administration. That’s not my role here today.”

For several years, Phil Murphy has faced harsh criticism of his administration’s push to, at one point, spend over $700 million building a pair of gas-fired power plants within a few miles of each other.

Both projects were meant to provide backup power to state agencies that lost power during Hurricane Sandy. Yet they were at odds with the administration’s clean energy goals, which are among the most ambitious of any governor's.

One of the two plants, meant to provide backup power for NJ Transit, was canceled last month. Officials cited long-known upgrades to the grid following Sandy to justify the decision, as well as a deal to reallocate federal dollars that were meant for the plant.

The second backup power plant, which Tammy Murphy came out against, remains alive. At one point, in 2022, the governor asked the sewer agency “pause” plans to build the $180 million power plant, following protests that his administration is betraying low-income communities in Newark, but planning for the project continued in 2023.

To justify her opposition, Tammy Murphy cited childhood asthma rates in Newark, which are far above the national average, as well as the grid upgrades in the area that make more power reliable. She also suggested the federal government could reallocate the money for other uses.

The first lady's opposition does seem like a possible death knell for the project, though. Long-time critics of the plant hailed her opposition to the project.

Kim Gaddy, Clean Water Action’s environmental justice director, praised Tammy Murphy for “talking the talk that needs to be talked.”

Democratic Rep. Andy Kim, one of Tammy Murphy’s primary opponents, said he also opposes the sewer agency’s backup power plant.

"There is simply no need for yet another gas power plant in the city of Newark when renewable energy solutions are possible, especially at a time when so many residents in that community are already living with some of the worst air pollution in the country, and dealing with that impact every day,” Kim said in a statement.