NEWARK, NJ — Environmental and grassroots community groups are taking aim at New Jersey’s Renewable Energy Credits program with the release of a report on Wednesday, which raised concerns about incinerators’ inclusion in the program.
The state’s renewable energy program is subsidizing incinerators, essentially “rewarding them” for burning garbage in overburdened communities like Newark, according to the report from the Earthjustice, NJ Environmental Justice Alliance, Newark’s Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC) and Vermont Law School’s Environmental Justice Clinic.
“Burning trash is a harmful and unjust way to manage waste. Incineration does not make waste disappear – instead, it converts waste into air pollution and toxic ash that contaminate the surrounding communities, which more often than not are communities of color and low-income,” the report summary read. “And while incinerator companies label incineration as clean energy, incineration is one of the most polluting and most expensive methods to generate energy.”
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The environmental advocates explained in the report that residents of communities where incinerators are sited are also more susceptible to asthma and COVID-19 due to the impacts from facilities and other pollution sources, citing four currently operating incinerators in the state: Covanta Essex; Covanta Camden; Covanta Union; Wheelabrator Gloucester; and one recently closed incinerator, Covanta Warren.
Last April, the advocates called on Covanta Essex, located on Raymond Boulevard in Newark, alleging that the facility was releasing illegal emissions. The company’s Essex facility has been at the center of controversy since 2019 for pink smoke it has been observed to give off, drawing the ire of activists and residents as colorful plumes resurfaced last year amid the pandemic.
Now taking aim at the state’s renewable energy credit program, the group claims that incinerators in the state have collected $30 million dollars in clean energy subsidies since 2004, even though those incinerators have violated their air permits in excess of 1,000 times during that time period.
“Incinerators are some of the biggest polluters in New Jersey’s environmental justice communities,” Jonathan Smith, an attorney for Earthjustice, told TAPinto Newark. “These are the last type of facilities that should be getting clean energy subsidies, let alone over $30 million received so far from utilities and ratepayers under the state renewable portfolio standard. The state must act quickly to stop these senseless subsidies.”
Covanta’s Media Relations Director James Regan, however, said that several claims in the report were “simply not true” and addressed what is currently being done by the company to cut back on its emissions.
In New Jersey alone, the report claims that Covanta Essex was one of the top emitters of air pollutants when compared to all 215 New Jersey major facilities with air permits, but Regan said the company took action to address this.
“Our facilities, including the one in Newark, operate up to 99% below our permitted levels,” Regan said. “Despite operating significantly under allowable levels, we are committed to continuous improvement and reducing emissions. In Essex for example, we invested more than $100 million to reduce emissions and now operate 99% below our permit for lead and 98% below our permit for mercury.”
Although the report claims that Covanta’s facilities have also faced more than 1,500 violations from June 2004 to 2019, he said that the company did not operate all the facilities in this timeframe.
“We acquired the Essex facility in June 2005 and the Camden facility in August 2013. Importantly, we also did not site any of the New Jersey facilities,” he said. “They were all sited by local government… Looking at actual hours and minutes out of compliance, we have a strong record. Over the period from 2004 to 2019 when we were the operator, our facilities were in compliance over 99.9% of the time.
While the Covanta representative said the facilities have addressed numerous violations, ICC Deputy Director Maria Lopez-Nunez claimed that facilities who benefit from the credit program are still allowed to continue operations, which she believes are inextricably linked to pollutant-related deaths in surrounding communities.
“COVID has really brought this to light,” Lopez-Nunez told TAPinto Newark. “Both because it has shown us that we need more money, and it has shown us where we do give money which is to polluting facilities that contribute to the disproportionate asthma rates in our communities… It’s unethical for New Jersey to be subsidizing dirty industry that contributes to air pollution and calling that ‘renewable.’”
Although the community advocates said they feel companies like Covanta should not be subjected to receiving subsidies, Regan claims that the state’s renewable energy program serves a vital purpose to their facilities’ operations.
“Energy pricing is very important to the continued operation of these facilities,” he said. “Given the collapse of the wholesale price of electricity because of the low price of natural gas, renewable energy credits are important for all renewable sources, including waste-to-energy (WTE).”
The Covanta media relations representative also said that the alternative to their operations could contribute to landfills, a major driver of climate change.
“If these plants were to shut down, it would mean significantly more emissions of [greenhouse gases] from landfilling and trucking waste out of state to someone else’s backyard,” he said. “At a time when we are all trying to address the urgent challenge of climate change, it makes no sense to disadvantage a technology like WTE that has real climate benefits.”
Lopez-Nunez said, however, more should be done to reward renewable energy facilities with cleaner operations.
“We should be using this money for wind and solar [energy],” she said. “Wind and solar don’t hurt anybody. They create good jobs. Those are two renewable jobs. Burning trash is not renewable. I know we have to deal with trash, but even with that, we should move to a zero-waste plan for the state of New Jersey… We should be subsidizing things that are good for our community, not that harm them, especially when they violate their permits.”