New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy directed a sewage treatment facility to cancel a vote Thursday on a backup power plant after Newark residents complained that it would violate a law intended to keep minority communities from being overburdened with pollution.
The Passaic Valley Sewerage Community was scheduled to approve a contract to build the largest part of a $180 million backup power plant, designed to kick in when the main facility is knocked offline.
But the vote was canceled after the governor intervened, encouraging foes, including residents of Newark's Ironbound section, who say it would violate an environmental justice law Murphy signed in 2020.
“I have a 9-year-old son, and it's scary to see more of this stuff coming in,” said Michael Habib, a Newark resident. “We already have dirty water, dirty air, bad smells. We're already overburdened.”
Janetza Miranda, also of Newark, recalled a day when several mothers were outdoors with their children when white flakes started falling from the sky. The children thought it was snowing, but the substance had been emitted from a nearby power plant, she said.
“Stop dumping on Newark,” she said. “You continue to do it over and over.”
The backup power plant is designed to avoid a repeat of what happened during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, when nearly a billion gallons of raw sewage flowed into nearby waterways when the plant went offline due to a lack of electricity.
Alexandra Altman, Murphy's deputy press secretary, said the governor had asked the commission to “pause their process and postpone the vote” to allow a more through evaluation of whether the project would violate the environmental justice law.
“Since taking office in 2018, Gov. Murphy has made clear that New Jersey’s overburdened communities will no longer be a dumping ground for harmful pollutants,” she said.
Thomas Tucci, the commission's chair, said, “We are doing this because we still want to have a dialog with the public and the community regarding this project. We're going to move forward in a realistic and environmentally responsible way.”
The backup power plant originally was proposed to run solely on natural gas, which residents say would worsen already poor air quality in the neighborhood.
The commission says it has modified the plan to incorporate the use of “alternative green renewable fuels” in conjunction with burning natural gas, and if and when technology advances to that point, using such fuels to replace natural gas entirely.
Aside from emergencies requiring its use, the plant would only operate one day a month for testing and maintenance.
But the commission also made clear that a backup power plant is coming, and cannot be avoided. No timetable was given for reconsideration.
Without a backup power source, the commission says, the loss of power combined with heavy rain could result in raw sewage backing up into homes and potentially flooding streets in Newark and surrounding cities including Jersey City and Bayonne
Such an outcome would be “catastrophic and unacceptable,” the commission's executive director, Gregory Tramontozzi said.
Follow Wayne Parry on Twitter at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC
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