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Energy-from-Waste Facility Agrees to Clean Up its Act

Covanta Energy pledges to deploy new air pollution gear to limit emissions of nitrogen oxide, a cause of smog in summer.

The owner of the Essex County garbage incinerator has settled a court case brought by community organizations that alleged the facility had committed hundreds of violations of the federal Clean Air Act.

In the settlement, Covanta Energy has agreed to install new air pollution control equipment to limit nitrogen oxide emissions from the plant, a type of pollution that contributes to the formation of smog during summer months. New Jersey has never complied with the federal air quality standard for ground-level ozone or smog.

The agreement tarnishes somewhat the reputation of Covanta at a time when it is trying to convince the Christie administration its energy-from-waste plants, which convert trash into electricity, should play a bigger role in New Jersey’s energy future.

Covanta, based in Fairfield, is one of the largest operators of garbage incinerators, owning more than 40 energy-from-waste plants, as the company prefers to have them called worldwide. Besides operating the Newark facility, the largest in the state, it owns trash-burning plants in Union and Warren counties.

Covanta has argued its facilities are much more technologically advanced than the garbage incinerators built more than two decades ago.

According to its website, Covanta’s plants generate the equivalent of enough electricity to meet the power needs of the state of Delaware. They also prevent more than 15 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Covanta chose not to comment for this article.

The lawsuit against the Newark facility was brought back in February 2009 by the Eastern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the Ironbound Community Corp., a nonprofit public interest corporation, and Greenfaith, an interfaith environmental coalition.

The law center argued Covanta had violated federal clean air standards dealing with sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and fine particulate matter on hundreds of occasions. The incinerator, approved despite intense local opposition in the Ironbound section of Newark, has the capacity to burn up to 2,800 tons of municipal waste each day. It accepts garbage from most of Essex County and much of Manhattan.

According to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the incinerator emits more mercury, a potent neurotoxin, than any other facility burning trash in the state.

Under terms of the settlement, besides installing new pollution controls, Covanta has agreed to commission a study to examine waste deliveries at the incinerator and to recommend improvements to the existing inspection program to keep dangerous and inappropriate waste out of the incinerator.

It also has agreed to fund a mercury collection program in Essex County to reduce the amount of mercury burned in the incinerator.

Finally, Covanta also has agreed to provide $875,000 to be used for a green space recreation project in the Ironbound section.

The plaintiffs welcomed the settlement of the suit, noting the Ironbound community has long suffered from high levels of pollution.

“All people should have a healthy environment, regardless of their race or income," said Rev. Fletcher Harper, executive director of GreenFaith. “Newark’s Ironbound community suffers more than its share of dangerous pollution. This settlement is a step in the right direction for the health of the community."

“Like everyone else, the children and families of Ironbound and all of Newark deserve a healthy neighborhood to live, play and work in. This settlement says loud and clear our communities will not stand for being the dumping grounds for the region’s garbage and pollution," said Joseph Della Fave, executive director of ICC.

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