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Time To Shut Down NJ’s Highly Polluting And Racist Garbage Incinerators

Garbage Incinerators Were Built In Low Income & Minority Communities 

They Are Major Sources Of Greenhouse Gas And Hazardous Air Pollution

There Are Cheaper And Greener Alternatives

It’s way past time to shut down NJ’s aging fleet of highly polluting garbage incinerators.

NJ now has 4 operating garbage incinerators (the rural Warren County facility is shut down), and they all are located in poor and/or minority environmental justice communities: They burn the following amout of garbage and emit GHG (according to DEP):

  • Newark (985,500 tons/year – 2.16 million tons per year greenhouse gas emissions)
  • Rahway (562,100 tons per year –  1.23 million tons per year GHG emissions)
  • Camden (451,140 tons per year –  988,800 tons per year GHG emissions)
  • Westville (209,875 tons per year –  460,000 tons per year GHG emissions)

That’s over 4.8 million tons per year of GHG emissions, roughly 25% of the total emissions from NJ’s power sector (19.2 million tons per year). Yet these plants provide only a tiny fraction of NJ’s electric power production.

The GHG emissions from garbage plants alone are about DOUBLE the emissions reductions that might result from DEP’s recently proposed power sector CO2 rule PLUS the much touted diesel truck rule combined (and incinerators are exempt from DEP’s proposed CO2 rule).

These GHG emissions do not include the harmful toxic and GHG emissions from the thousands of garbage trucks per day that dump at the facilities.

They also don’t include harmful emissions of mercury, lead, fine particulates, NOx, SOx, and hazardous air pollutants, which deposit locally and poison nearby environmental justice communities (look at the Newark DEP air permit emissions). [Full disclosure: I was involved with Newark project at DEP.]

The original arguments, made back in the late 1980’s, against incineration are far stronger today given the climate emergency, new science on local air pollution deposition, and the growing public disgust with environmental racism.

A Legacy Of Toxic Racism

Back in the 1980’s, the Kean Administration adopted a State Solid Waste Plan which directed all 21 NJ counties to site and develop garbage incinerators. Almost all were sited in poor and minority communities. DEP rubber stamped those County siting decisions.

This was the policy when I joined DEP in 1985. The NY Times from April 1984 explains:

In his message to the State Legislature in January, Governor Kean said that resource recovery would be implemented through a legislative package. Among other things, the package would provide financial incentives for private investment in the construction of resource-recovery facilities and a tax on garbage disposal to provide funds to develop these facilities.

In 1985, the Legislature passed laws to levy garbage disposal taxes and created a $168 million bond fund to provide huge subsidies to these “resource recovery” facilities. That same legislation (“McEnroe” named for the Democratic Assemblyman sponsors from Essex County) promoted privatization and deregulated the “public utility” economic oversight of BPU. (McEnroe deregulated solid waste haulers too). The Kean administration allocated 100% of NJ’s scarce “private activity bond volume cap” subsidies as well (instead of to other public purposes, like affordable housing). The NY/NJ Port Authority was used to subsidize the Newark incinerator (good story of how that happened). Federal energy laws (PURPA) provided huge subsidies and BPU allowed huge above market power purchase contract prices for the small amount of electric power produced at these facilities.

Statewide environmental and grassroots groups fought back. They strongly opposed incineration and mounted public campaigns against building these technological highly polluting dinosaurs. Their opposition focused on toxic air emissions, toxic residual ash, and how these facilities undermined cheaper and greener source reduction and recycling programs. The environmental racism siting issues were not yet front and center in the debate, as they are today, and there was no mention of climate issues (an incinerator sited in Trenton did prompt the environmental racism issue).

Strong public opposition grew and democracy worked, which led Gov. Florio – via Executive Order #8 –  to declare a moratorium on DEP approvals of incineration.

EO 8 created a public Solid Waste Task Force that led to the development of a radically improved DEP Solid Waste Plan that mandated a policy hierarchy of source reduction, recycling, composting, and landfill. That plan set the nation’s then highest recycling rate (65%), backed up by State laws funding and mandating source separation and local recycling programs.

Garbage incineration was deemed a “technology of last resort” by that DEP Solid Waste Plan and any new garbage incinerator had to be regionalized.

That led to the termination of 15 planned, financed, and/or DEP permitted county incinerators.

But the current fleet of 5 were either operating, under construction, or too far along financially or legally to be canceled by the new DEP plan and were effectively grandfathered from it (regardless of how bad the pollution and economics were).

[Note: astonishingly, the current DEP Solid Waste Plan (last updated in 2006!) not only totally whitewashes this history, it actually criticizes Gov. Florio’s Executive Order as:

an administrative policy and has tended to divert attention away from the more significant goal of recycling at least 50% of the municipal solid waste stream.

I smell the fingerprints of Gary Sondermeyer and Guy Watson, 2 DEP bureaucrats we had to work around to make things happen.]

Here’s How To Shut Them Down

The same strong arguments opposing incineration the led Gov. Florio to issue Executive Order #8 and impose a moratorium and cancel 15 planned incinerators still hold today and are made far stronger by the climate crisis and the awareness of the blatant racism that drove the siting of those facilities.

The bonds on those facilities have long been paid for, so there is no private “stranded investment”,  no lost public investment, and need to compensate the corporate owners of those facilities.

The original DEP air and solid waste permits have expired and been renewed several times.

It’s time to just shut them down.

DEP could do that by simply revoking the DEP operating permits and unilaterally amending the State Solid Waste Plan to delete them from County Solid Waste Plans.

The scientific, legal, and regulatory basis for DEP to do that is that there is the new information  generated since the DEP permits were issued regarding the climate crisis and localized impacts of air emissions on environmental justice communities.

With respect to climate, the current DEP Solid Waste Plan estimates: (Note: this plan and this data are over 15 years old)

The USEPA calculated that on average, approximately 1.67 metric tons of CO2 equivalents are avoided for every ton of municipal solid waste (MSW) recycled. If the MSW recycling rate increases from 34% to 50%, a total of 7.7 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent in avoided Greenhouse Gas emissions would result.

DEP can reopen, amend, and/or revoke permits on the basis of new information. The public (activists) can petition DEP to reopen and revoke permits on this basis under DEP permit regulations.

Additionally, there is new law, including the passage of NJ’s Global Warming Response Act and the Environmental Justice law.

Why aren’t climate and EJ activists demanding shutdown?

[End Note: The history is even worse than The NY Times story describes.

A media exaggerated “landfill disposal crisis” provided cover for the Kean DEP to force north jersey counties to build expensive garbage transfer stations to export garbage long distances to midwestern landfills.  Of course, Wall Street and politically powerful NJ Bond Counsel law firms like McCarter and English loved this.

The resulting high tipping fees at these transfer stations increased historical in state landfill disposal costs – sometimes by an order of magnitude – to over $130 per ton or more.

The “rate shock” and impact on local budgets were intended to coerce counties into building “cheaper” incinerators, which were supposed to be welcomed by the public as a “cheaper” alternative to the DEP manufactured rate shock from the transfer stations.

I’m not making this up – This cynical economic blackmail strategy was all laid out in a consultant’s Report – The Mitre Report it was called.

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