Environmental justice groups sue for incinerator pollution

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NEWARK, New Jersey – Community groups in New Jersey and California are suing the US Environmental Protection Agency, seeking to force waste incinerators across the country – many in majority minority communities – to emit less pollution into the air.

One of the incinerators covered by these standards occasionally emitted pink or purple fog into the air over Newark, New Jersey.

The groups are asking a court to order the agency to update its standards for large incinerators, saying the EPA was supposed to do so at least 10 years ago.

The Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark, New Jersey; East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, based in Commerce, Calif.; and the National Sierra Club are plaintiffs in two separate lawsuits seeking the same goal: a court order directing the EPA to act now to limit the amount of pollutants these incinerators can be allowed to emit.

“Eighty percent of these large incinerators are in environmental justice communities,” said Jonathan Smith, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice in New York. “The EPA finally updating its emissions standards is compelled by its stated commitment to environmental justice.”

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“We found a consistent pattern of these facilities, many of which are old, located in environmental justice communities,” said Ana Baptista, environmental justice expert at The New School of New York and board member of Iron bound. “These lawsuits are important to solving this problem.”

Environmental justice refers to a movement to ensure that minority communities that are already disproportionately burdened by sources of pollution are not subjected to others, as well as to try to reduce existing sources.

The lawsuits were filed Jan. 13 in a federal district court in Washington and Dec. 21 in a Washington court of appeals.

The EPA declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

The lawsuits allege violations of the Clean Air Act. Changes to the law in 1990 require the EPA to set performance standards for large incinerators that burn 250 tons or more of waste per day, then update those standards every five years, according to one of the trial.

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The most recent deadline for an update was in 2011, but the EPA took no action, according to the lawsuit.

East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice is active in East and Southeast Los Angeles and Long Beach, California. In addition to community programs, he opposes incinerators and says he played “a vital role” in the advocacy that led to the closure of an incinerator in Commerce, California in 2018.

The Ironbound Community Corporation is a large social service provider in a section of Newark, New Jersey that takes its name from the railroad tracks that border it on three sides. Earlier this month, it helped postpone a sewage utility’s plan to build a backup power plant in an area already suffering from pollution and poor air quality.

Baptista grew up in this neighborhood, describing it as often smelly and heavily industrialized.

While driving to her parents’ house in 2020, she noticed something different emanating from the chimney of the Newark incinerator.

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“I saw bright pink smoke coming out of it,” she said. “At first I was like, ‘Is this some kind of breast cancer awareness they were doing, some kind of bad joke?'”

The contaminated smoke turned out to be the result of the plant mistakenly burning iodine-containing materials from a Newark chemical company, according to Covanta, the company that operates the facility. In a report to New Jersey environmental regulators, the company said several instances of pinkish or purple haze were due to materials containing iodine between 2018 and 2020, adding that it had stopped accepting such materials.

Four New Jersey garbage incinerators are covered by EPA standards in Newark, Camden, Rahway and Westville in Gloucester County, Smith said. Similar incinerators in California include those at Long Beach and Crows Landing near Modesto.

The companies that operate the incinerators claim that they meet all applicable federal environmental standards.

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One of the suits notes a 2007 lawsuit in which the EPA is said to have agreed to review its incineration standards, and a 2008 court order returning the case to the EPA for a second review.

“More than 13 years have passed since the court dismissal without any action by the EPA to review or update its standards,” the lawsuit states.

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Follow Wayne Parry on Twitter at @WayneParryAC

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