A Newark neighborhood takes on a toxic trash incinerator.
A Newark neighborhood takes on a toxic trash incinerator.
The Covanta incinerator is a repeat offender. Since 2004, the facility has racked up some 800 air permit violations for exceeding pollution limits or failing to have necessary safety measures in place.
So when Covanta initially blamed the cotton candy-colored smoke on a hospital that had improperly disposed of medical waste, and claimed that the discharge didn’t pose any health risks, residents weren’t inclined to believe them.
In the summer of 2019, ICC got in touch with Earthjustice. Both groups had already worked together to strengthen protections in air permits for gas plants in the Ironbound. Alongside the Environmental Advocacy Clinic at Vermont Law School, Earthjustice helped the organization draft a letter calling on state officials to investigate whether Covanta had violated its air and waste permit.
During a meeting in December 2019, Earthjustice learned the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection would investigate the matter. As the investigation moved forward, Covanta officials changed their tune. Previously they had said the colored smoke was coming from “the same material used for cleaning or disinfecting cuts,” but later, they acknowledged it was from waste that a pesticide manufacturer had improperly disposed of.
Inhalation of iodine, the chemical that Covanta was burning, can lead to lung irritation, coughing, and shortness of breath. Higher levels of exposure can cause bronchitis, thyroid gland disturbances, and liver and kidney damage.
“It just so happens that the iodine is visible,” Lopez-Nuñez says. “It makes me wonder about the emissions that we can’t see. It’s just a constant reminder that we don’t know the different negative health-harming substances that burn on a day-to-day basis.”
In October, Covanta agreed to a consent order drafted by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection that requires the company to develop new waste management practices, improve employee training, conduct a health impact assessment and install monitoring cameras. The agency also fined Covanta $24,000 for violating the state’s Air Pollution Control Act.
“The Ironbound community is emblematic of what we have found around the country where working-class communities of color have been targeted by polluters,” says Earthjustice attorney Jonathan J. Smith. “These communities are carrying a much bigger burden of harmful substances than they should and paying for it with their health. That must change.”
ICC is working to make sure the incinerator follows through with the changes that the agreement calls for. The organization is also working on more sweeping solutions. For one thing, they want incinerators to stop getting millions of dollars in renewable energy subsidies for burning waste.
New Jersey law requires that a certain amount of the energy that utility companies supply must come from renewable sources. Those sources include solar power, wind, and trash incinerators. In theory, the incinerators can sell this so-called green energy only if they meet “the highest environmental standards” and minimize impacts to local communities.
“But in reality, all the incinerators in New Jersey have had air violations” says Smith. “And they still sell ‘renewable’ energy.”
Smith says it is deeply problematic that people pay extra for electricity thinking that their money goes to “clean energy,” but in fact some of that money is going to burning trash, which causes massive amounts of pollution in communities already overburdened with toxic pollution.
The state’s five incinerators have received an estimated $30 million in subsidies through this renewable energy program, and the most polluting of these incinerators are in communities of color.
In the spring of 2020, Earthjustice, Vermont Law School’s legal clinic, ICC, and the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance called on New Jersey regulators to cut polluting incinerators out of the subsidy program. State officials are currently weighing the proposal.
There’s reason to believe that New Jersey is reaching a turning point when it comes to environmental justice. In September, ICC helped pass a law that may be the strongest environmental justice provision in any state. It requires the Department of Environmental Protection to deny certain types of pollution permits to a business if the pollution would impose a disproportionate burden on a community that’s substantially low-income or a community of color.
Lopez-Nuñez explains that the bill encountered pushback for 12 years before it was finally passed.
“There was definitely a lot of opposition,” she says. “To say pollution is connected to race makes people uncomfortable. Industry wants no limits. They always want no limits. But having lived experience in the conversation lets people know this is not just a theoretical conversation. We’re talking about people’s lives.”
Lopez-Nuñez says ICC is trying to fend off gentrification and displacement. New zoning rules allow for higher-density housing and buildings with more floors. And with developers looking for cheaper land to exploit near New York City, existing residents fear that new housing catering to upper-income residents would push up rents and push out blue-collar residents.
But whatever challenges the Ironbound faces, Lopez-Nuñez is determined to continue fighting.
“We just want what everybody else has without being displaced,” she says. “We think Black and Brown people deserve nice things. We deserve clean air, healthy food, and we want to have a relationship with the land without corporate invasion every day. We don’t want our community to just survive, we want our community to thrive.”