Ironbound neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. Photo credit: Paul Sableman on Flickr

‘Pause the process’ says Governor Murphy in building natural gas-fired power plant in Newark

Activists say they are still fighting for New Jersey leadership to honor its environmental justice law.

On sunny days, the Passaic River along the Ironbound neighborhood glistens murky green, algae-inspired hues. Putrid and “nausea-inducing” smells, “including animal carcass odors,” belch into the air. These are some long-standing effects of contaminants that  residents of “the Neck” or “Down Neck” must encounter daily. 

A culturally rich, mostly Latino district located in the east ward of Newark, New Jersey, Ironbound is a mixture of residential and manufacturing companies. Known as “The Neck” to locals, activists and a bevy of doctors who advocated for Ironbound recently won a battle. Albeit temporary, another sewage plant construction is halted in the compacted downtown neighborhood.

After months of demands for New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy to stop the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission’s (PVSC) vote on granting a contract for a $180 million backup treatment plant, he delayed the process. “The pause 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,” Alexandra Altman, deputy press secretary for the governor’s office, said in a statement.

| Read: Residents divided in Newark’s mask mandate

Ironbound manufacturing row on Ferry Street. Named for the Dutch colonial ferry that used to travel east from Newark, Ferry Street is located in the Ironbound section of Newark–an area that historically had been called “Dutch Neck”, “Down Neck” or simply “the Neck” because of the way the Passaic River curved. The name ‘Ironbound,’ originated from either the many forges and foundries found in the area in the late 1800’s and the iron-laden rail tracks that surrounded it when railroads were constructed in the 1830’s. Photo credit: Paul Sableman on Flickr

Nonetheless, local environmental activists like Ironbound Community Corporation director Maria Lopez-Nunez claim Gov. Murphy’s actions are once again “placing unfair environmental burdens on communities of color.” In an earlier comment about the project, Lopez-Nunez emphasized, “This fracked gas plant will cause further harm to Ironbound residents who have already been unreasonably burdened with an overwhelming number of environmentally hazardous facilities in their area.”

Plans to build the sewage plant went into play shortly after the 2012 major storm, Hurricane Sandy. Earmarked from FEMA money, the wastewater treatment plant would serve as a backup sewage facility needed after floods and high winds caused others to fail during that time. When high winds ripped through Newark during the super storm, rising rough waters flooded nearby communities and faltered power supplies. As a result,  a sewer overflow beelined straight into the Ironbound.

While the plant is recognized as a needed fix to a weak infrastructure, local activists say the commission’s reports of offering an eco-friendly treatment space are false.

“Now, we enter the most important weeks and months of this fight. That’s because PVSC continued to greenwash their dirty power plant at their board meeting last week,” tweeted ICC. “[T]he Governor and PVSC have only committed to pause the project so a more robust environmental justice review and stakeholder engagement can occur.”

What the frack?

One major issue for the group against PSVC’s current proposal is the plant’s design to use fracked-gas, a move that Newark resident Cynthia Mellon, who is also the Co-Chair of the Newark Environmental Commission and board member of the NJ Environmental Justice Alliance, says “is completely out of alignment with Governor Murphy’s and President Biden’s commitments to transition to 100% clean, renewable energy.”

On September 18, 2020, Gov. Murphy signed a progressive environmental justice law mandating the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to “evaluate the environmental and public health impacts of certain facilities on overburdened communities when reviewing certain permit applications.” Said groups are low-income, communities of color, and those with limited English proficiency. Ironbound fits all categories.

While all parties wait for the state evaluation outcome, activists say PVSC can adopt better strategies like the ones NJ Transit used in Kearny, a whiter working-and-middle class town a few miles away from the Ironbound section. After protests of using fracked-gas to power its rail system, the transportation department switched from the former to renewables to power a microgrid. 

Yet and still, Food and Water Watch New Jersey and other environmental groups vocalized concern at a February 9 RFP meeting, stating the request for proposals allowed possible applicants to use fossil fuels with blurry guidelines regarding energy source. Another committee meeting for this project is scheduled for Feb. 24.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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