A waste management company rejected a new attack from residents of Newark’s Ironbound district who say their health is threatened by air pollution from a trash incinerator, and that the state Department of Environmental Protection isn’t doing enough to stop it.
Advocates for the residents wrote to DEP and the Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday, complaining that the Essex County Resource Recovery Facility, operated by Covanta, emitted a “purple plume” on April 7. They claimed the incident was the latest of “hundreds” of air-permit violations by the plant in recent years.
Covanta acknowledged the existence of the plume from its smokestack for about 30 minutes on April 7, and confirmed that it was caused by iodine in the waste from an unnamed manufacturing company, but not from any medical waste that critics suspected. It said the resulting presence of the chemical in air around the incinerator was well below the level at which it could be a respiratory irritant.
Company spokesman James Regan said the company is “very confident” that it has identified the source of the iodine, and is no longer accepting the waste that caused the problem. Given that the chemical may also be used by other industries such as commercial printing or food manufacturing, Covanta is now looking for other sources in its waste stream “to ensure waste that may contain iodine does not come to the facility,” he said.
“We have diverted this waste and it will no longer be coming to the Covanta Essex facility,” he said. “While we are pleased to have identified the source, we will not rest on our laurels. We will continue to work with other potential generators to ensure waste that may contain iodine does not come to the facility.” The plant typically burns all types of trash.
In their letter, the advocates speculated that the plume may have been caused by iodine, which is sometimes used as a disinfectant, in an increased volume of medical waste caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Worried about permit waivers
And they said they are “gravely” concerned that the company will seek waivers for its regulatory or statutory requirements as a result of DEP’s recent COVID-19 compliance alerts.
The DEP said it is doing its own investigation into the source of the plume that Covanta specified, but has not reached a conclusion.
“They believe they have identified the source; we at DEP must vet that presentation of information,” said the department’s chief of staff, Shawn LaTourette, in an interview with NJ Spotlight.
He said DEP will never soften its enforcement of environmental rules, even during a pandemic, but will listen to companies whose ability to comply has been hit by the pandemic, and accommodate them if it can.
“Just as I intend to be responsive to this environmental justice community, I intend to be responsive to the businesses that power our economy, and if COVID-19 has limited a business’s ability to comply with environmental law, I will hear how this pandemic has affected them, and I will work with them to make sure that there is compliance notwithstanding their disruption,” LaTourette said.
On Monday, DEP issued an alert saying it was extending a grace period for entities with air permits, such as Covanta, to file monitoring and other required data so that they can devote resources to protecting public health in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jonathan Smith, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice, one of the advocates for the Ironbound residents, said they are urging DEP to disclose any requests for permit waivers so that the public can know in advance about any change in the waste stream that the COVID-19 crisis has prompted.
“We are concerned that changes in waste streams brought about by COVID may change the waste that Covanta is burning at the incinerator, or cause Covanta to ask for waivers,” he said.
For its part, Covanta has visited the sites of customer-companies that might use its iodine; inspected incoming waste more often than required under its permit, and installed high-resolution cameras in different parts of its plant to help identify the material before it is combusted, Regan said.
He said the plant is not permitted to process medical waste at the site. “We have no plans to process medical waste at that facility, and it’s just not possible,” he said, noting that medical waste is collected separately and handled by licensed operators.
And he denied the company plans to seek waivers of permit requirements because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Absolutely not, we have no intention to do so,” Regan said.
Company responds to allegations
Asked to respond to the group’s charge that it had violated its air permits “hundreds” of times, Regan said the statement ignored the fact that some violations were minor or technical.
“Without context of the actual emission, that sentence to me is meaningless,” he said. “It could be a two-second carbon monoxide emission, or a monitor went down and we fixed it. It’s not a full-scale stack-test failure or anything like that.”
But Leonard Thomas, an Ironbound resident who has lived nine blocks from the incinerator for about 15 years, said that what the company dismisses as a minor problem can be serious for residents.
He said the air around his home smells bad in different ways, depending on what kind of waste the incinerator is burning, and which way the wind is blowing.
“Sometimes it smells like burning hair, sometimes it smells like burning chemicals, sometimes it’s a very acrid odor that makes you sneeze or cough, or makes you sick to your stomach,” he said.
Recently, Thomas said he thought he had been infected with COVID-19 because he was getting a head cold and a scratchy throat, but then discovered that the symptoms went away when the incinerator stopped burning one batch of material.
“There have been times over the past couple of weeks when I actually thought I had the virus,” said Thomas, 73, a retiree. “My throat was burning, I had some of the upper-respiratory symptoms of corona but when I opened the window, I could smell the burning garbage so it was a reaction to the burning stuff that was coming from that direction.”
Asking DEP for help
He called on DEP to stop the emissions. “If they had responded in a good manner, it would have stopped,” he said.
The letter from Earthjustice, the Environmental Advocacy Clinic at Vermont Law School, and the Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC) said COVID-19 amplifies the threat to public health from the plant’s emissions.
Citing a recent Harvard University study, the group said there’s a link between COVID-19 fatalities and exposure to particulate matter — fine particles that lodge in the lungs — and nitrogen oxides, which the plant emits at high levels, according to the letter.
“This means that the Ironbound community, which historically has suffered more air pollution than other New Jersey communities, may face a greater risk of health harms and death from COVID-19 because of Covanta’s emissions and its repeated air permit violations,” the group said.
It acknowledged that DEP drafted a “Purple Plume Prevention Plan” late last year but said the department had not shared any new information about the plan for the last six weeks. The advocates said they feared that further DEP action was being held up by the permitting process for testing for another chemical at the Covanta plant.
It urged DEP and the AG’s office to separate the testing permit from the iodine question, and to take enforcement actions against Covanta for “ongoing violations” of an air permit. The letter also called on the two offices to respond to the ICC’s comments on DEP’s plume-prevention plan.
The AG’s office declined to comment.