Camden for Clean Air: Fighting Covanta's trash incinerator, the largest air polluter in Camden County, NJ

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Covanta's trash incinerator in the City of Camden, New Jersey is the largest air polluter in the city, and in all of Camden County, responsible for half of the industrial air pollution in the county. See the factsheet on Covanta Camden's emissions for details, based on the latest data from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

This aging and uneconomical trash incinerator is looking for life support in the form of a microgrid proposal. Microgrids are a good idea, and this one in Camden would help keep the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority's sewage treatment plant and other local industries operating if the power went out. However, Energy Justice Network member group, Camden for Clean Air, is opposed to a microgrid being tied to the county's #1 air polluter. The microgrid plan would help Covanta make far more money (at least 3-4 times more) on their electricity sales.

A microgrid can and should be operated on clean power like solar and energy storage systems. It should not be propping up a filthy trash incinerator that, at best, only has about 5-10 years of life left. Covanta is pitching this as being connected to installing baghouse filters they've been missing for most of the plant's life. However, Covanta can and should install these regardless. They also pitch the idea that they'd be using wastewater instead of fresh water to cool their incinerator. This is also independent of any microgrid plan. In Chester, PA, another Covanta incinerator made this same wastewater use arrangement with a sewage treatment plant, without any microgrid.

See the 107-page microgrid proposal in the Camden City Council agenda, and our 2-page Covanta microgrid factsheet. The NJ Board of Public Utilities has a Microgrid program listing proposals such as the Dec 2018 Camden Microgrid Feasibility Study. The study only looked at existing electric generation sources (Covanta's trash incinerator). However, it can and should look at solar and energy storage, and could benefit from the NJ BPU's Pilot Project funding for community solar microgrids.

A study by a professor of environmental medicine at New York University has found that just one pollutant released from the Baltimore trash incinerator causes an estimated $55 million in annual harm to human health across several states (including New Jersey), mostly attributable to lives cut short. This pollutant is fine particulate matter, also known as "PM2.5" (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns). A recent Harvard study has found that very small increases in this PM2.5 pollution in the air are enough to cause a 15% increase in death from COVID-19. We also know that in New Jersey, as in Maryland, black residents are dying from COVID-19 at the highest rates. In NJ, it's nearly double the rate of white residents.

While the Camden incinerator is less than half the size of Baltimore's, the Camden incinerator has higher emissions of fine particulate matter (PM2.5): 46,174 lbs of PM2.5 in Baltimore when the study was done... compared to 51,320 lbs of those emissions in Camden in 2017. That, combined with the higher population in the Philadelphia area means that we can expect Covanta Camden is causing MORE than $55 million in annual health damage just from that one pollutant.

Clearly, this is not the time to be economically propping up Covanta's incinerator. In fact, Baltimore's city council is determined to force their two waste incinerators to close down. In 2019, they unanimously passed our Baltimore Clean Air Act, and the city is currently defending that law in court. Unfortunately, New Jersey does not allow similar local clean air laws, but there are other ways that city council can work to transition from incineration to the Zero Waste solutions that produce far more jobs and far less pollution. It all starts with not throwing additional subsidies at them, and tying them into local infrastructure from which it'll become harder to excise them.

You can find a lot more info at our webpage on trash incineration, including info on incineration and human health, and how incineration compares to landfills.

Covanta's Violations

Covanta has a long history of law-breaking, as evidenced by this 93-page compilation of their violations through 2006. Covanta didn't take over running the Camden trash incinerator until 2013, so their violations aren't reported until this more recent compliance history through June 2018. See page 6 for violations at the Camden plant.

Environmental racism

Camden has a long history of activism against environmental racism, and was part of a major environmental justice legal case in the 1990s. Learn more about environmental justice and environmental racism. Trash incineration is an industry most known to disproportionately impact black communities, as our research has proved. The racial disparities, industry-wide, with trash incinerators disproportionately impact black residents the most from half-mile away all the way to 25 miles away and beyond. Around Covanta Camden, specifically, you can find the demographic data at various distances available in the EJ analysis at the top of the Covanta Camden page in our mapping project.

Covanta's Propaganda

Covanta has much to say about how healthy and safe they are, despite clear evidence that they're a major air polluter. They have "white papers" on health and emissions. See our responses to these PR pieces on health studies and their air emissions claims.

Media Coverage:

6/2/2020 Opinion: Covanta Doesn't Deserve Chance to Expand in Camden
6/1/2020 Residents Invited To Virtually Discuss Proposed Camden Microgrid Plan
5/27/2020 Burning trash to generate electricity: Losing combination for Camden kids’ lungs and learning (Opinion piece by Camden for Clean Air member, Ben Saracco)
5/22/2020 Microgrid Meets Resistance Over Ties to Camden Incinerator, Lack of Community Engagement

5/21/2020 Opinion: Microgrid Innovation Promises to be Part of the City’s Sustainable Future (Freeholder Nash opinion piece)
5/19/2020 Opinion: Burning Trash to Generate Electricity, a Losing Combination for Camden Kids' Lungs and Learning (Opinion piece by Camden for Clean Air member, Ben Saracco)

What we want:

We demand:

  1. A full racial-disparity impact study of the Covanta plant’s impact on Camden County communities;
  2. A full and comprehensive environmental impact study of this plant on Camden County communities as required by the Camden Sustainability Ordinance [see related City Code];
  3. That Covanta immediately implement the most modern filtration technology available to trash incinerators;
  4. The creation of a new microgrid proposal that incorporates truly clean and renewable energy, such as solar, for Camden County and does NOT rely on a dirty incinerator;
  5. The creation of a preliminary plan to move the antiquated and dirty Covanta incinerator offline and replace it with a microgrid that relies on non-burn, renewable, sustainable sources of energy that truly protect and benefit our residents; and
  6. That Camden City and Camden County finally hold Covanta accountable for decades of devastation and refuse to give Covanta any further approvals until the above demands are met.

Sign on here!

We're also working to get the Camden City School District Advisory Board to pass this proposed resolution:

RESOLUTION #___ SY 19-20


WHEREAS, asthma is a leading cause of school absenteeism; and

WHEREAS, asthma costs our nation $82 billion a year, including $3 billion in missed school and work days, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America's "Asthma Capitals 2019" report, which also names our metropolitan area as the nation's 4th worst asthma capital; and

WHEREAS, one in three Camden students is diagnosed with asthma, nearly four times the state average; and

WHEREAS, Camden residents are four times more likely than New Jersey residents as a whole to visit an emergency department or be hospitalized for asthma; and

WHEREAS, air polluted by nitrogen oxides (NOx) is well known for triggering asthma attacks; and

WHEREAS, toxic lead pollution reduces a child's ability to learn and contributes to anti-social behavior; and

WHEREAS, Camden is the 3rd worst in the nation for industrial air pollution near public schools; and

WHEREAS, the Covanta Camden trash incinerator is the largest industrial air polluter in Camden County, by far, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, accounting for half of the county's industrial air pollution, including 81% of the nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution and 89% of the lead pollution; and

WHEREAS, Covanta Camden is the second largest air emitter of toxic lead in the entire trash incineration industry in the U.S.; and

WHEREAS, there is no safe dose of lead; and

WHEREAS, the brain damage caused by lead exposure is permanent and irreversible; and

WHEREAS, trash incineration is the most polluting way to manage waste or to make energy; and

WHEREAS, the Camden City School District believes that Covanta's aging trash incinerator is not healthy for the students or teachers in our School District; and

WHEREAS, policies that promote, finance, or otherwise extend the life of the Camden trash incinerator, such as the proposed microgrid, or the state Renewable Portfolio Standard, should instead focus on affordable, clean energy sources like solar for the health of our students and community; now,

therefore, be it

RESOLVED, the Camden City School District urges Camden City Council, the Camden City Office of the Mayor, Camden County Freeholders, the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, and the State of New Jersey Office of the Governor not to support any policies or projects that financially support or partner with the Covanta Camden trash incinerator, and to find ways to end incinerator pollution and meet our needs with non-burn, clean, renewable energy solutions; and be it further

RESOLVED, that a copy of this resolution will be sent to Camden City Council, the Camden City Office of the Mayor, Camden County Freeholders, the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, and the State of New Jersey Office of the Governor.