Environmental justice groups sue over incinerator pollution

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.

This Jan. 25, 2022 photo shows a large trash incinerator in Rahway, N.J. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

This Jan. 25, 2022 photo shows a large trash incinerator in Rahway, N.J. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

Community groups in New Jersey and California are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, seeking to force trash incinerators across the country — many of them in predominantly minority communities — to emit less pollution into the air.

One of the incinerators covered by those standards has on occasion emitted pink or purple mist 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; the Commerce, California-based East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice; 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.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

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

“We’ve found a consistent pattern of these facilities, many of them old, being sited in environmental justice communities,” said Ana Baptista, an environmental justice expert at The New School in New York and an Ironbound board member. “These lawsuits are important to address that.”

Environmental justice refers to a movement to ensure that minority communities that already are disproportionately burdened with sources of pollution are not subjected to additional ones, as well as to try to lessen existing sources.

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

The EPA declined comment, citing the pending litigation.

The lawsuits allege violations of the Clean Air Act. Amendments to the law in 1990 obligate the EPA to set performance standards for large incinerators that burn 250 or more tons of trash a day, and then to update those standards every five years, according to one of the lawsuits.

The most recent deadline for an update was in 2011, but the EPA has failed to act, the lawsuit alleges.

East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice is active in eastern and southeastern Los Angeles and Long Beach, California. In addition to community programs, it opposes incinerators and says it played “an integral role” in advocacy that led to an incinerator in Commerce, California closing 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 that already suffers from pollution and poor air quality.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Baptista grew up in that neighborhood, describing it as frequently smelly and heavily industrialized.

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

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

The tainted smoke turned out to be the result of the plant mistakenly burning materials that contained iodine 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 mist were due to material containing iodine between 2018 and 2020, adding it has stopped accepting such material.

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

The companies that operate the incinerators say they all comply with current federal environmental standards.

One of the lawsuits notes 2007 litigation in which it says the EPA agreed to review its incinerator standards, and a 2008 court order sending the matter back to EPA for a second look.

“Over 13 years have passed since the court’s remand with no action from EPA to review or update its standards,” the lawsuit read.

Get the WHYY app!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal