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The Color Purple: Newark Residents Fed Up With Incinerator Smoke

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — In the Ironbound section of Newark, purple is the color of desperation.

At least 10 times this year, colorful smoke – sometimes violet, sometimes pink – has been spotted billowing from the Covanta trash incinerator on Raymond Boulevard. But it’s not a whimsical display, activists allege: It’s a potential sign of dangerous pollution.

Earlier this week, a coalition of groups led by the Newark-based Ironbound Community Corporation issued a stern letter to state environmental officials, their latest salvo in an ongoing battle with Covanta.

In their letter, activists allege that the colored smoke coming from the incinerator — which burns 2,800 tons of garbage per day from 22 municipalities in Essex County and New York City — is due to the presence of iodine. It’s an indication that the facility could be burning medical waste, which would be in violation of its air and solid waste permits with the state, activists said.

See related article: Newark Trash Incinerator Seen Spewing Purple Smoke (Again)

Covanta has repeatedly acknowledged that iodine is likely the cause of the purple smoke. But on Thursday, a Covanta spokesperson told Patch the coalition’s accusations about burning medical waste are “absolutely not true,” and that the company has no plans to do so at the Newark facility.

In addition, Covanta believes it has finally managed to pin down the source of the iodine that has been making its way into the incinerator over the past year.

“We have diverted this waste, and it will no longer be coming to the Covanta Essex facility,” a spokesperson said. (Read the company’s full statement below.)

But activists and residents in the Ironbound area say the weird, purple smoke is just one reason among many for shutting down an incinerator that they never wanted in the first place.

“These violations imply a lack of oversight and knowledge about what type of waste Covanta is burning,” they alleged in their letter to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) and the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General.

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Purple smoke seen above the Covanta trash incinerator in Newark, NJ on Oct. 10, 2019. (Patch reader submission)

The need to put the spotlight on Covanta’s Newark incinerator is even greater amid the coronavirus crisis, the groups charged:

The coalition gave state authorities a deadline of June 1 to take corrective action at the Covanta Essex facility, or the ICC will “explore other legal avenues to achieve these results.”

The groups are also demanding that the NJDEP make all requests to waive regulatory and permitting requirements for the facility available to the public.

“This area is not only an ‘environmental justice’ community, but has one of the highest coronavirus rates in the state,” said Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey Sierra Club, which is supporting the campaign by ICC, Earthjustice and the Environmental Advocacy Clinic at Vermont Law School.

“All across the country, incinerators have been dumped into low-income and minority communities,” Tittel said. “A recent study showed that nationally, 80 percent of the incinerators are in environmental justice communities. In New Jersey, that figure is 100 percent for our four incinerators in Newark, Camden, Rahway and Westville.”

According to Tittel, the Covanta incinerator in Newark emits “the greatest amount of lead in the country,” an allegation the company has denied.

“Incinerators are poisoning families and children who live near these facilities,” Tittel charged. “The lead is not only in the air, but in the soil and ground children play on. On top of that, particulate matter, toxic ash, cyanide and more are coming out of the incinerators. These harmful chemicals have already caused health problems such as heart diseases, increased asthma rates, and elevated blood levels. Now, with COVID-19, the health impacts from these incinerators will be far worse.”

Covanta says on its website that the coronavirus crisis is also causing an influx of testing and decontamination waste such as masks, gloves and disinfectants at its incinerators.

See related article: People Are Leaving Coronavirus Garbage All Over Essex County

“Our material processing facilities receive and process COVID-19 decontamination waste materials under strict local and federal standards,” Covanta states. “The COVID-19 decontamination debris is then sent to our waste-to-energy facilities to be thermally destroyed in a controlled environment.”

The Newark incinerator — one of those locations — generates about 65 megawatts of electricity, making it New Jersey’s largest energy-from-waste facility, the company says.

The idea that Covanta is helping to turn garbage into power doesn’t hold much water with activists, however, including Tittel, who said that the wattage output at the Newark incinerator is “dismal” when viewed in context with the pollution it creates.

Last year, Maria Lopez-Nunez, director of environmental justice and community development with the ICC, told Patch that Covanta’s Newark incinerator is located near several large public housing complexes — Terrell Homes, Hyatt Court and Aspen River Park — which are home to a large population of low-income and Section 8 renters. Many are immigrants, she said.

“It’s not an evenly distributed problem,” Lopez-Nunez charged. “It would be unheard of to place a garbage incinerator in Montclair or Short Hills … it’s the epitome of environmental racism.”

“We don’t need to be the dumping ground for Essex County or New York City,” Lopez-Nunez added. “There are real human beings that live here.”

See related article: Essex County Trash Incinerator Unfairly Burdens Poor, Critics Say

COVANTA RESPONDS: ‘NOT DANGEROUS TO PEOPLE IN AREA’

James Regan, a spokesperson for Covanta, offered Patch a detailed response to the coalition’s allegations on Thursday.

“The purple color is coming from iodine, the same material used for cleaning or disinfecting cuts or for use in hospitals before surgeries,” Regan said. “Iodine could also be present in waste from a wide variety of generators, anything from a commercial printer to a food manufacturer. When these materials are combusted, a portion of the iodine is emitted as a gas, which has a highly-visible purple color, even at low concentrations.”

Any material can be dangerous at a high enough concentration or dose, and iodine is no exception. But that doesn’t mean there’s an actual danger in Newark, Regan said.

“In the case of these events at the Covanta Essex facility, the combustion of this material is not dangerous to people living or working in the area due to the low concentration,” Regan stated. “When in the air, iodine is an irritant at about 0.1 parts per million (ppm), and we can smell it at about 0.9 ppm. The purple plumes we’ve had at the Covanta Essex facility equate to a concentration of about 5 parts per billion at the ground, a small fraction (5 percent) of what it would take to be an irritant.”

Preliminary dispersion modeling indicates that the maximum ground level impact when purple smoke was spotted at the Newark facility on June 19 last year — the longest duration event cited by activists — was about 19 percent of a short-term standard established by regulators, Regan said.

According to Regan, since the purple and pink smoke incidents began, Covanta has rolled out a two-step process to stop it from happening. The first step includes efforts to prevent material containing iodine from being delivered to the Newark facility, such as:

“Contacting customers and haulers as well as performing site visits in various industries such as healthcare, veterinary, chemical, photography and food manufacturing establishments””Inspecting incoming waste loads above the frequency required by our permit””Installating high-resolution cameras within strategic locations of the facility to help us identify this material before it is combusted”

The second step is researching mitigation systems, Regan said. This includes:

“Conducting pilot tests that will help us identify the best equipment and process to mitigate future occurrences””Consulting academic staff at universities to research and evaluate alternate mitigation systems””Planning to utilize an independent engineering firm to validate our findings”

Regan said the company has also managed to track down the suspected source of the purple smoke. He wrote:

Regan offered Patch the below charts that contain emissions information for the Covanta Essex facility.

“Importantly, you’ll see that the Covanta Essex facility’s emissions of NOx is 7 percent and Particulate Matter (PM) is 2 percent of all emissions in the area,” Regan said. “With less vehicles and aircrafts operating due to COVID-19, one could assume that overall emissions in that area have decreased.”

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COVANTA IN NEWARK: A BRIEF HISTORY

Currently, the Newark incinerator combusts 2,800 tons per day of municipal garbage and generates about 65 megawatts of electricity, making it New Jersey’s largest “energy-from-waste” facility. It burns garbage from New York City and all 22 municipalities in Essex County, converting it into enough electricity to power about 45,000 homes, Covanta states on its website.

The result of an arrangement between Essex County and the Port Authority of NY/NJ, the incinerator’s construction was financed in 1990 with tax-exempt public bonds in an attempt to keep trash out of landfills.

The location of the plant, 183 Raymond Blvd., was a joint decision between the city of Newark, Essex County and the Port Authority.

Covanta took over operations at the facility in 2005. It operates 44 waste-to-energy facilities in North America, China and Europe, and maintains a global headquarters in Morristown.

In 2012, Covanta reached a deal with the Port Authority to run the facility through at least 2032, with an option to continue through 2052. As part of its deal with the Port Authority, Covanta installed a particulate emissions control system known as a “baghouse,” as well as a metal recycling system. The upgrade reportedly cost about $90 million; it was completed in 2016.

Since finishing the baghouse upgrade, Covanta’s Newark facility has reduced lead emissions by more than 90 percent and mercury emissions by more than 80 percent, a spokesperson previously told Patch.

Officials with the NJ Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker — who was serving as Newark’s mayor at the time — praised the upgrade as a big stepping stone for the community.

“This new baghouse filter represents a milestone in using advanced technology to protect public health and enhance the quality of life in Newark,” Booker said. “As a strong advocate for this upgrade, I am proud to be celebrating [this] major achievement with Covanta and everyone else who made it possible.”

See related article: Improvements Promise Cleaner Emissions from Newark Trash Incinerator

However, despite assurances of safety from the company and praise from officials, Newark residents continued to protest against the facility and the chemicals coming from its smokestack.

In 2018, dozens of Newark students and their parents marched on the incinerator to demand cleaner air, arguing that a garbage incinerator should never have been allowed to be built within walking distance of an elementary school.

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