LEAD CONCERNS FUEL FIGHT VS. INCINERATOR
Karen Yi For The Star-Ledger
The mid-November snow whipped across their faces, piling on their hats and coats. But the kids were undeterred.
“Newark is (at) risk right now. Our air is not good enough,” 12-year-old Al Tyquan Pickett said before jumping on his bicycle and joining his friends congregating on Cortland Place.
Hours before the city’s roadways began to clog amid the snowstorm, dozens of students and their parents marched a mile from their neighborhood toward Covanta, the garbage incinerator operating in the industrialized section of the Ironbound, to demand cleaner air.
The waste-to-energy plant emits lead, dioxin and other pollutants, but Covanta officials say they’re operating well below allowable emissions — and are continuing to improve.
“This would not be allowed in a rich, affluent neighborhood,” said Maria Lopez, director of environmental justice and community development for the Ironbound Community Corp., the group that organized the protest. “They would never have a garbage incinerator burning trash a walkable distance from the elementary school.”
The protest came on the heels of another public health concern for children in the city: elevated levels of lead in the city’s water.
“In urban areas, we know there are high concentrations of lead not just in the water but also inside buildings, in the air that we breathe, and Covanta is a contributor to that,” Lopez said.
The Ironbound community’s battle against the incinerator has raged for decades, even before the facility was constructed in 1990.
Covanta, which owns 44 waste-burning facilities across the world, converts the garbage it burns into energy.
Company officials say recent upgrades to the Newark plant have dramatically decreased its emissions — in some cases by 90 percent.
“We don’t get to operate unless we’re a good neighbor,” Paul Gilman, chief sustainability officer for Covanta, told NJ Advance Media. “We work very hard to continuously improve what we do.”
Covanta touts itself as a leader in renewable energy and a better alternative to landfills. Covanta’s Newark facility (one of four in the state) processes about 2,800 tons of waste a day primarily from 22 municipalities in Essex County. It also contracts with New York City.
The garbage is then converted into energy — enough to
SEE LEAD POISONING, A18
By the numbers
Covanta touts itself as a leader in renewable energy and a better alternative to landfills. It collects waste primarily from 22 municipalities in Essex County. It also contracts with New York City. The garbage is then converted into energy — enough to power about 45,000 homes a year, officials say.
Volume of waste Covanta’s Newark facility processes each day.
Lead emissions have decreased by this amount from 2011-15 to 2016-17.
Number of waste-burning facilities Covanta owns around the world.
Residents from Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood marched to Covanta, the waste-to-energy incinerator, on Nov. 15 to demand clearer air. Covanta officials say they’re operating well below allowable emissions and continue to improve. Photos by Karen Yi, for The Star-Ledger
The Covanta facility in Newark, one of four in the state, has operated since 1990. Company officials say recent upgrades to the Newark plant have dramatically decreased its emissions — in some cases by 90 percent.
power about 45,000 homes a year, officials said. The company argues generating energy from trash offsets additional greenhouse gases that would be produced from a fossil fuel energy source.
“We’re among the smallest footprint for unit of energy produced,” Gilman said. “We don’t add to the inventory of greenhouse gases.”
It also avoids filling up a landfill that generates methane and risks contaminating groundwater with toxic leachate, he said.
But Lopez and other organizers say it’s not fair for Newark to bear the burden of having a local incinerator. The city, which also houses Newark Airport and Port Newark, has long been scarred by other industrial pollutants that contaminated parts of the Passaic River and exposed children to contaminated air. “Just in the Ironbound, we have the airport, seaport, Newark energy plant, co-generation plant, a fat-rendering plant, a sewer treatment facility,” Lopez said. “We’re seeing a disproportionate burden on the residents of Newark.”
One in four kids in Newark has asthma.
And of the 14,000 kids under the age of 6 who were tested for elevated blood levels in 2016, about a quarter had detectable levels of lead in their blood, according to the Advocates for Children of New Jersey.
“We think it’s all their responsibility and Covanta should answer for their share of the responsibility,” Lopez added.
‘MORE THAN ENOUGH WASTE’
Most conspicuous for its tall smoke stack that emits carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the combustion process, Gilman said the plant operates well below what’s allowed.
And a new set of filters called a “bag house” installed in 2016 has reduced emissions of mercury, cadmium, lead and particulate matter. Lead emissions have decreased by 97 percent from 2011-15 to 2016-17.
“Often because there’s a smokestack, these plants are misunderstood as far as their impact,” said James Regan, a spokesman for Covanta. “We can understand people’s concerns and their questions about the stack; we strive to be transparent and show our data and show our facility.”
Covanta takes in a little under 1 million tons of trash a year. About 300 garbage trucks roll in and out of the facility off Raymond Boulevard, dumping their trash and paying per ton.
On a recent tour of the plant, a crane operator overlooked a 90-foot tall pit stacked high with about 13,000 tons of trash.
He picked up large heaps of garbage and released a load into one of three combustion chambers as pigeons scattered near the tops of the piles.
The trash then burns at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, producing steam that makes electricity and goes into the electric grid.
The fire burns continuously.
“Every week we burn everything we receive,” Gilman said.
The plant employs 83 full-time employees.
But critics say the model discourages recycling because it relies on burning waste to produce energy.
Company officials, however, say they’re pushing for more sustainable waste treatment including more recycling. They already recycle metals.
“There’s more than enough waste in this country,” said facility manager Carlos Ascencio.
And they don’t take everything that gets dumped from garbage trucks.
Garbage loads with too many recyclable materials are rejected. Mixing garbage with recyclables is against state law.
It’s the combustion of plastics that contributes to greenhouses gases. When plantand animal-based waste combusts, it is not counted as an emission.
Officials say they’re also pushing for more sustainable alternatives in their industry, including encouraging an expansion of recycling and replacing diesel trucks with electric vehicles.
‘STOP BURNING NEWARK’
“What do we want? Clean air! When do we want it? Now!” the students who picketed last month chanted as they made their way to Covanta.
“We’re marching because the garbage incinerator is burning garbage and the smell is terrible down there. And the lead is in the water and in the air,” said Jason Ellis, 13. “We should recycle more.”
Holding a large sign that read “Stop Burning Newark” kids, wearing white filter masks, made their way by foot and on bike to the plant. Some threw snowballs at each other.
“I understand they’re trying to make money but they can do it in another way, instead of making us sick,” Pickett said.
“We don’t produce a million pounds of trash; that’s all not coming from Newark,” Lopez said. “The community doesn’t benefit from that; we don’t have great schools and great infrastructure.”
Lopez said she wants Covanta to phase out its operations in Newark.
Covanta said they have no plans to do so.
“Wherever we locate, people will ask, ‘Why here?’ And will ask, ‘What will you do to minimize the impact?’” Gilman said.
He said the company tries to engage with the community.
“We’re committed to talking to them.”
Karen Yi, NJ Advance Media, email@example.com
Students, some wearing masks, march to the Covanta facility in Newark to demand clean air. Karen Yi, for The Star-Ledger