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'Enough pollution' in low-income NJ area with 1 power plant

The CPV power plant operates in Woodbridge N.J. on Feb. 27, 2023. The company's plan to a second gas-fired power plant next to the existing one is being opposed by residents of the mainly minority and low-income communities around the plant who say an environmental justice law signed over two years ago by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy but which has yet to take full effect should prevent the plant from being built. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

WOODBRIDGE, N.J. (AP) — Residents of low-income communities in New Jersey that would get a second gas-fired power plant nearby are urging the governor to halt the project, which they said flies in the face of an environmental justice law he signed with great fanfare over two years ago — but which has yet to take full effect.

Competitive Power Ventures wants to build the second plant beside one it already operates in the Keasbey section of Woodbridge, about 22 miles (35 kilometers) south of Newark. The company says the expansion is needed because of growing demand for energy, pitching it as a reliable backup source for solar and wind energy when those types of power are not available.

But residents of the mostly minority neighborhood of Keasbey, as well as surrounding low-income and minority towns, say the second plant will pump even more pollution into an area that already suffers disproportionately from it.

They say their communities are precisely the types of places that are supposed to be protected by the law Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy signed in 2020, calling it the toughest environmental justice law in the nation. The measure is designed to ensure low-income and minority communities that are already overburdened with pollution are not forced to accept additional sources of it.

“We have enough pollution here,” said Jean Roy, an asthma sufferer from Woodbridge. He noted that the state's two largest highways — the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway — run through Woodbridge, which is already highly industrialized.

“Don't add more,” he said. “It would be nice to see the plant built in some of the more affluent and pretty areas.”

The governor's office referred inquiries to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which considers Keasbey “an overburdened community” under the environmental justice law.

But because CPV's application for an air quality permit was deemed complete in 2017 — before the new law was signed — the pending measure does not apply to it, said Larry Hajna, a DEP spokesperson. An administrative order issued by the governor requires CPV to take certain steps, including holding the public comment session it hosted Tuesday night.

The company is obligated to respond to concerns raised at the hearing, and the DEP can impose special conditions on permit approvals for the project “as may be necessary to avoid or minimize environmental or public health stressors upon the overburdened community to the maximum extent allowable by law,” Hajna said.

During Tuesday's hearing, residents lambasted the state, saying they're angry that the environmental justice law still has not taken full effect. They voiced suspicion that this and other proposed power plants will be approved before the new rules take hold in April.

Chris Nowell of the environmental group Food & Water Watch said Murphy should not “allow this plant to beat the buzzer by one month.” If that happens, he asked, “Do you think we would have any faith in the DEP left at all?”

The American Lung Association gives Middlesex County, which includes Woodbridge, a grade of “F” for ground-level ozone pollution.

Numerous speakers from Woodbridge and neighboring communities told of their children's struggles with asthma and other ailments, which they attribute to growing up in a polluted industrial area.

James Dabrowski, secretary of the NAACP chapter in the neighboring city of Perth Amboy, recalled a terrifying incident with his 1-year-old son.

“We had to rush him to the hospital in an ambulance because he couldn't breathe,” he said. “CPV already has one massive fossil fuel plant in Keasbey spewing out toxins. The last thing we need is another power plant right next to it.”

Daniel Heyden of nearby Metuchen said he lives just over two miles from the existing CPV plant, and his 2-year-old son also had to be hospitalized in intensive care with an extreme form of asthma. He now must take three different medicines a day.

CPV, which is based in Silver Spring, Maryland, says its proposed second plant “will be one of the most efficient and lowest emitting generation facilities of its kind” as it provides enough electricity to power 600,000 homes and businesses. The company says its new plant will allow the closure of older, less efficient and more polluting facilities.

CPV said Tuesday the greenhouse gas emissions from the new plant would be “at the lowest level achievable in the U.S. from a natural gas-fired electric generating station.”

It still needs over a half-dozen environmental permits from state and federal authorities.

Only a tiny handful of speakers supported the project, including a retired union worker and a current union official praising the jobs it would create.

But most speakers said the health consequences of another power plant in the area would far outweigh any economic benefits.

“Your jobs mean nothing to me,” said Brian Russo, an environmentalist from northern New Jersey who used to work in the Woodbridge area. “There will be no jobs on a dead planet.”


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Wayne Parry, The Associated Press