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For Smog Control at Incinerator, Public Pressure Played Key Role

In late March, the Christie administration trumpeted an agreement that would lead the Essex County garbage incinerator to sharply reduce pollution from its facility in the Ironbound section of Newark.

The agreement between the operator, Covanta Energy, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey calls for installation of state-of-the-art pollution emissions control system at the agency’s site, the largest in the state.

“My administration has worked closely with the Port Authority and Covanta to reach an agreement that ensures Newark residents are able to realize improved air quality,’’ said Gov. Chris Christie in a statement issued by the state Department of Environmental Protection on March 27. The agreement is part of a new 20-year Port Authority contract allowing New York City use of the incinerator.

Yet the agreement probably would never have happened if the public, along with citizen groups, had not intervened in what has become a long-running dispute over operations of the Ironbound facility.

Three years ago, the DEP issued an air permit renewal and failed to give proper public notice, even while both the Ironbound Community Corp. and the GreenFaith had already sued the facility for hundreds of permit violations at the facility. The DEP had failed to notify either party.

Stung, the two organizations filed a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, requesting the agency force DEP to revoke and reopen Covanta’s air permit. The law center argued Covanta violated federal clean air standards for sulfur dioxide and fine particulate matter on hundreds of occasions.

Hundreds of members of the public appeared at a subsequent hearing, calling for the facility’s air emissions, particularly particulate pollution, to be brought under more controls and see more sophisticated pollution equipment be installed.

“This outpouring of public support for a cleaner facility was vital in giving leverage to negotiate with Covanta to install baghouses,’’ said Rev. Fletcher Harper, GreenFaith’s executive director, referring to the name of the pollution controls.

“We hope DEP continues to decrease pollution levels measurably in Newark, and does not allows increases at new or existing facilities,’’ Harper said.

William Schulte, an attorney for the Eastern Environmental Law Center, which represented the community organizations, agreed. “Without the public, DEP could never had made that deal,’’ said Schulte.

The new pollution controls are expected to be twice as effective in controlling fine particulate matter, a pollutant which numerous studies have linked to a variety of problems, including respiratory ailments, increased asthma and premature death for people with lung disease and heart problems.

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. Besides operating the Newark facility, it owns trash-burning plants in Union and Warren Counties. The Newark incinerator can burn up to 2,800 tons of garbage a day, which comes from all of Essex County and Manhattan.

Under the terms of the agreement, the “baghouse” controls are be installed on each one of the facility’s three units, the work to be completed by the end of 2016.

Other air quality improvements also will result from the proposed contract between the Port Authority and New York City by requiring trucks hauling waste to the facility to be equipped with the newest and best diesel emission controls.

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