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News Release

Trash Incinerators Pollute Frontline Communities While Claiming Renewable Energy Subsidies

Wednesday, February 24, 2021


Newark citizens march in protest wearing masks during a snowstorm
Newark's Ironbound community protests pollution

New Jersey’s Dirty Secret,” a new report from Vermont Law School’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic and Earthjustice, exposes how trash incinerators fuel environmental injustice.

In a new report published today, Vermont Law School’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic (EAC), Earthjustice, and the Ironbound Community Corporation expose the harmful effects of trash incinerators on New Jersey’s frontline communities and call on the state to stop subsidizing it.

New Jersey’s waste incinerators burn trash to create energy. Although the process pollutes, incinerators profit off that energy, calling it “renewable”—while citizens foot the bill.

Trash-burning does create energy, but at a great expense, emitting mercury, carbon monoxide, lead, methane, cancer-causing dioxins, and other pollutants into the air. Incinerators can emit more air pollutants than coal plants per unit of energy—up to 18 times more lead, 14 times more mercury, six times more smog-forming nitrogen oxides, five times more carbon monoxide, four times more cadmium and hydrogen chloride, and more than double the greenhouse gases. These incinerators are predominantly located in communities of color and low-income communities, and are major contributors to the poor air quality that makes residents more susceptible to respiratory diseases and infections like asthma and COVID-19.

“Trash incineration is very different from the clean energy sources like wind and solar that most of us think of when we hear ‘renewable energy,’” said Rachel Stevens, an environmental justice attorney in Vermont Law School’s EAC. “But New Jersey’s definition of ‘renewable’ is shockingly subjective. The State of New Jersey classifies this dirty energy as renewable. And once it's sold back into the marketplace, citizens pay for it through their utility bills. We need to close this loophole.”

This practice is not only harmful—it’s illegal. New Jersey’s five trash incinerator facilities have collectively violated their air permits more than 1,700 times since 2004. But according to NJ’s Renewable Portfolio Standard law, only waste incinerators that meet the highest environmental standards and minimize community impacts are eligible to sell renewable energy. Despite these violations, the incinerators have collected more than $30 million in “clean” energy subsidies from utilities and ratepayers since 2004.

“We paid for our own disproportionate deaths,” said Maria Lopez-Nuñez of the Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC), an organization in a diverse, working-class Newark neighborhood. "Burning trash is toxic, and it's unacceptable. There are other ways to deal with waste that won't make our community a dumping ground."

report cover

View the report →

For years, the EAC and Earthjustice have been representing the ICC in their fight against the Covanta Essex incinerator, a particularly polluting facility that recently garnered attention for emitting a suspicious purple plume suggesting the illegal burning of medical waste. While the pollution has made headlines, less attention has been paid to the role of public funding for “renewable” energy in encouraging it.

The new report aims to change that. It calls on the state to amend the law and remove incinerators from the definition of renewable energy, and to immediately stop the purchase and sale of “Renewable Energy Certificates” (RECs) at the incinerators that have violated their Clean Air Act operating permits. It also offers policy recommendations to prioritize job-creating, energy-saving, and community-affirming zero-waste solutions for waste management.

While the report focuses on New Jersey, its message is relevant throughout the country. Many other states include trash-burning in their definitions of renewable energy, and facilities across the US are likely profiting off of pollution that violates the Clean Air Act and other permits. “During the COVID-19 crisis, it’s even more important to hold polluters accountable and enforce laws that protect overburdened communities,” said Stevens. “New Jersey’s leaders must stand up to incinerators and stop giving them subsidies to burn garbage.”